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Leadership is a Choice

Leadership is a choice

What kind of crazy statement is that? Leadership is a choice. Really?

Over the centuries we have been subjected to “thinking” that told us that leadership comes from being born to the right blood. That some people are made of the right stuff. That only those with the “right” education can lead. That only highly articulate people can lead. That only those with a liberal arts education can lead. That only tall people can lead. That only men can lead.

Take any random word based on any human variation, and I will bet we can find someone, at some point in history, who has claimed that variable is the one necessary for leadership. Let’s try a little experiment to test our theory. Go on, try it: choose a word that describes some element of human variation and put the word in the space in this sentence: “Only … can lead.”

Even well-balanced people, not prone to wild assertions, make a slightly toned down version of the same error. It goes like this: “X make better leaders.” Note how much more reasonable that sounds. It is, however, no less irrational.

Again, try this little experiment. Take any word to describe a human being and put it in the gap in the following sentence. “… make better leaders.” Again, a short search should find someone who has said it in earnest and not, as you did, in jest.

What is the point here? That almost everything ever written or said about leadership is wrong, if it links leadership to specific traits.

In over 30 years of coaching, most of that coaching leaders, I can say there is only one thing all the leaders I have worked with have in common: they made a choice to lead.

Only one? Surely not!

Yes. The variation between leaders is the same as for the rest of the population. Some have PhDs, some have zero qualifications, none, not even a cycling safety certificate. Some come from aristocratic families, some had no family and grew up in “care.” Some are tall, some short. Some elegant, some clumsy. Some brown skinned, some pale skinned. Some female, some male. Some gay, some straight. Some healthy, some… you pity their doctor.

The only factor that I have seen that they have in common is: they have made a choice to lead.

Of course, once that decision is made, there are lots of skills that can be developed to make leadership more effective. For some it was developing a consensual, collegiate approach. For others, command and control skills. Some choose to empower their staff to solve problems, others solve the problems and empower staff to implement solutions.

What is the point? Once the choice is made to lead, the methods chosen to lead seems to show the same level of method variation as in any human endeavor.

Does that mean that all methods are equally effective? Far from it. The evidence is that some methods are massively more effective in given contexts, and those same methods can be disastrous in other contexts. For instance, democratic, consensual, decision making when there is clear and present danger is dangerous, to say the least!

Do most leaders know which methods are most effective in which contexts? No. Only those who study leadership in depth have that knowledge.  Acquiring such knowledge can take a leader up several levels of effectiveness, but nothing compares, in terms of results, to the one thing that all leaders have in common: making the choice to lead.

Leadership is a choice first. Once the choice is made, once the commitment is undertaken, the knowledge and skills can be acquired, or aligned behind the leadership choice.

These are bold statements. Let’s test them.

You wouldn’t be reading this article unless leadership was of interest. That means you have either already chosen to lead or you are exploring making that choice.

What do you lead? If it is a company or a function, or a team, or ideas, then you have chosen a field of leadership.

Do you lead your local funeral business? Do you lead your local leisure centre? Do you lead your local supermarket? Petrol station? Cinema? Theatre?

No. Why not? Because you made a choice to lead something else. If you made a choice to lead something else, then you made a choice to lead.

In seminars when I present this idea, there is usually someone who protests: “Not everyone can lead. Some people are just unsuited to leadership.”

It sounds almost reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, let’s see. Employee X who comes to work, does her or his menial job, obediently, goes home and leads the local canoe club, or teaches boxing, or runs a food bank, or is President of the fishing club or… Almost everyone leads something, something that they have CHOSEN to lead.

Leadership is a choice, and that observation has huge implications for leadership development, leadership coaching, and executive coaching, and crucially, for recruitment. Here is just one of the recruitment implications. If you want nice obedient staff, who will not challenge anything, will not think for themselves, you want to weed out anyone who shows any kind of leadership outside of work. Yes, there are (rare) circumstances where that is exactly what is required.

In most circumstances, the exact opposite is best. Most companies want leaders. In which case they try to find people who have made the choice to lead something outside of work, and give them the choice to lead something at work.

Not everyone wants to lead at work. We all know people who are brilliant leaders in their chosen context who have repeatedly declined invitations to take on employment based leadership roles. Odd as it may seem to those of us who lead for a living, that, like leadership itself, is a choice; their choice.

Once you have made the choice, becoming more effective as a leader in your context requires the development of skills, the acquisition of approaches that increase your leadership effectiveness. The choice of leadership, is not the end, it is the beginning. Once you have made the choice to lead, you have, on an onoging basis, another choice: whether to improve as a leader, or not.

If you want to develop the skills to improve your leadership, contact PsyPerform here.  PsyPerform specialises in equipping leaders to achieve higher performance.

Prof Nigel MacLennan

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