Great Leaders Are Built, not born-talentiqHow Well-Built Are Your Leaders?

When leaders perform their leadership roles with seemingly little effort, observers often describe them as “natural born leaders.”  In fact, there is no such thing as a ‘born leader.’

Rather, becoming an effective leader is the result of a process of individual growth, feedback, and a fierce focus on iterative improvements.  Like a world-class athlete training to compete at the highest level by mastering a set of skills of increasing complexity, great leadership is the result of hours spent honing and building the skills they contribute to exceptional leadership.

Unlike athletes, however, whose skills development focuses on the development of fundamentally physical skills, leaders are built from the inside out.  The fundamental skills for leadership begin inside of the leader, at the human level. It begins with an inward journey, then becomes an outward journey, and both elements are filled with missteps, feedback, adjustments, hard choices, and change.


In our experience, the pathway for developing exceptional leadership skills follows this model:

  1. Establishing Authentic Vision and Values
    Effective leaders understand what really drives them. They have a clear vision of their leadership goals and possess an unyielding set of values that drive their decisions and shape their unique leadership identity. Their commitment to their vision and values also makes them reliable and predictable, two important requirements to gain the trust of followers.
  2. Gaining Awareness of Self
    The best leaders all share a high sense of self-awareness.  They know clearly who they are now, who they need to become in the future and have a prioritized plan to achieve their future state. And, they share a willingness to change themselves or their plan based upon what insights they collect along the way.
  3. Developing a Keen Awareness of Others
    Strong leaders develop a ‘sixth sense’ about others. Not only can they read people well, but they can anticipate people’s reactions to the news with uncanny accuracy. This ability to predict someone’s reactions helps them anticipate needs and build solutions that address those needs. They also use their awareness of others to craft personalized, individual messages that will resonate with each unique member of their team.
  4. Understanding Their Personal Brand
    Leaders understand that their actions and words together create a personal brand, and that brand becomes The Thing they are known for. They learn to curate and reinforce that brand through their actions. They also know that their brand has to be authentic and align with their values. When their brand needs to be improved, leaders know how to make the changes required in their behavior to support the new brand.
  5. Understanding Their Specific Context
    Leaders develop the ability to assess their context to understand the opportunities and the limitations of their current environment. They learn to capitalize on the opportunities, minimize the impact of threats, and constantly adjust their approach as the context shifts. Contextual elements include the scope of role, time and timing of projects, current boss, current power structure, political winds, support/requirements of family, and many other elements that change often and can expand or delimit leadership possibilities.
  6. Developing a Strong Leadership Presence
    Finally, the best leaders work to continually improve their leadership presence. They develop a style that supports their leadership vision and values. Their demeanor inspires others to accept their leadership because it rings of authenticity. They develop superior communication skills, can command a room, and are in control of their communication style at all times. They also cultivate a polished, appropriate appearance that supports their overall leadership style. They understand that it is the combination of these elements that create their leadership gravitas or charisma, and as importantly, that blunders in these areas will cost them credibility.


Organizations often select leaders based on their high technical competence, failing to assess a potential leader’s capabilities in these areas and therefore their readiness to lead others. And, many training programs offer development in one or two of these areas, but not all six. Development in all six areas is essential to forming effective leadership capabilities, and that development requires the continuous improvement loop of awareness, time, mentorship, feedback, change, and mastery.

There are of course many detailed steps along each step in the leadership development path. How much time to spend on development in each area varies, depending upon how far an individual might have already developed their skills in each area. Regardless of a leader’s current capabilities, it is always helpful for them to have a sponsor and/or a skilled mentor to help identify areas where immediate improvements can be made to accelerate the leadership journey.