Popular leadership books make a big deal out of saying that anyone can be a leader. United States’ culture places a heavy emphasis on everyone being equal, so I understand why this idea is so popular in America.
I was reading Politics by Aristotle the other day and it struck me how different his view of leadership was from our modern ideas. Aristotle felt that people were more or less born as a barbarian (someone not fit to lead) or a noble (someone fit to lead). While his views might seem extreme in our modern view of things, there may be some benefit in that type of approach.
If we recognize that some people are leaders and others aren’t, we’ll spend less time trying to develop leadership skill in people who have no natural propensity to lead. One of the great failures that technology companies are working to overcome is the tendency to pay more for leadership skills than for technical skills. Many very productive scientists and technical people get moved to management positions because it is viewed as a promotion.
Some do well, but others find themselves poorly equipped for their new responsibilities. They are basically taken out of the area where they perform well and are highly skilled and put into an area where they don’t perform well and have no skills. Technical companies are responding to this crisis by creating parallel development paths for employees—one path is technical and the other path is management. Someone who is not a leader can continue to advance throughout their career without requiring them to shift to management.
I do believe that leadership skills can be taught, but I don’t believe that it is necessarily beneficial to everyone. If you’ve ever seen an eagle try to run, you’ll know that it isn’t something they are good at. Since they don’t do it much, they aren’t quite balanced and usually compensate by sticking out their wings.
One point of view would be to look at the eagle and decide that, with a little training, he can become a better runner. With a little practice, the eagle should be able to keep his wings at his side and balance more naturally while running. I’m not sure how much work it would take, but with persistence you could at least make some improvement.
The other point of view would be to make sure eagles aren’t put into situations where they are required to run. Even if you could train them to be twice as good at running, that really isn’t much improvement. Your organization will gain much more by putting them in areas where they can be successful with the skills they have.