The Best Leaders Are Made of the ‘Right Stuff

Optimizing the engage—achieve relationship is evidently not an easy task and represents a real challenge every day. Nor, it must be said, is it possible to get it right all the time, because they are often competing forces. That is why only the most talented individuals can ever hope to get close to that ideal. Lots try, but only some - the Genuine Leaders — get it right more of the time than wrong. What is it though that helps these leaders to outshine their peers? What do they have that is lacking in the Impostors?

In his celebrated book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe painted a vivid picture of the American military pilots who helped to pioneer the NASA space program.4 He tells the compelling story about these volunteer test pilots as they participated in early testing and describes how the seven Mercury astronauts were selected and later trained. His book is largely about the heroism of these men and particularly focuses on who they were as people and how they lived by an unspoken set of standards and assumptions which was summed up as having ‘the right stuff.’ In the book Wolfe himself described these individuals as “that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.”

Clearly, the requirements to succeed as an astronaut differ from those needed to make it as a work leader. Yet, it goes without saying that the best leaders too need something special if they are to succeed and having some form of the right stuff is essential in any leadership context. Although it is hardly revolutionary to promote the idea that people need certain traits and skills to lead effectively, at the same time, when you talk to leaders it is not always as clear regarding which are more important — is it the traits or the skills?

Obviously, there are a range of skills which are critical to leading effectively and only a fool would dispute that fact. All too frequently leadership potential is too narrowly focused on the skills side, but I am convinced that how leaders think and who they are on the inside is far more important. In fact, it is not just my opinion because there is an abundance of research on why leaders fail which shows that issues like self-awareness, mindset, and personal qualities are probably of equal if not more importance than skills as determinants of success.

Most of the flaws seen in underperforming leaders, I find, are related as much to who they are as people, as they do to the skills they may or may not possess. Skills alone, while essential, are of little use if a leader does not have certain personal characteristics and a way of thinking that underpins positive leadership. Therefore, the best leaders are something before they do anything. It is who they are as much as what they do which separates the good from bad. You might say that Genuine Leaders are made of the right stuff (Figure 2.2).

Having the right stuff helps Genuine Leaders to better balance the engage-achieve relationship:

• How they think. The high levels of self-awareness I have seen in all Genuine Leaders allows them to play to their strengths and minimize the impact of their weaknesses. Allied to this, they always seem to have positive mindsets towards life generally, but specifically in relation to how they view the leadership role which in turn influences how they act and behave every day. We will look at this aspect more closely in Ghapter 6.

  • • Who they are. Genuine Leaders have strengths across a number of vital personal characteristics or traits that are vital in any leadership context. They always seem to have attributes that draw others to them, and which help them to a build a meaningful partnership with their people in order to achieve the planned results. This will be our focus in Chapter 7.
  • • What they do. Genuine Leaders are of course multi-skilled, but they will always tell you that they view these skills as being the icing on the cake, not much good if the cake is not there. We will consider some of these skills in Chapter 8.

All this talk about the right stuff raises an age-old question which is worth a quick digression. Can everyone become a Genuine Leader? Ah yes, it is that old chestnut again, the nature—nurture dilemma. Are top leaders born or made? Certainly, leadership skills can be learned and developed, so in that sense, Genuine Leaders can be made. But is it possible to change personal qualities, or an individual’s mindset? To some degree it probably is, but never easily and not in the short term. Mindsets and attributes cannot be learned or changed in the same way that skills can because these aspects of our make-up are the product of a lifetime’s development and perhaps, in some part, even inherited it is often argued.

So, there must be some natural foundation there because when an individual lacks the right outlook or certain personal qualities, hoping to be a great leader is an unattainable goal and no amount of leadership training

Genuine Leaders are Made of the Right Stuff will compensate for their absence. In that sense there is a born component, so you might say that Genuine Leaders are born and made

Figure 2.2 Genuine Leaders are Made of the Right Stuff will compensate for their absence. In that sense there is a born component, so you might say that Genuine Leaders are born and made.

As we will see, the more of the right stuff that an individual has, the more likely they can make it to the level of Genuine Leadership. The less of it, the greater the likelihood they will end up operating in Impostor mode most of the time.

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