Leaders Aren’t Born; So How Do You Build One?

This is the half remembered distillation of a conversation that involved a very long run, half a bottle of extremely expensive scotch and a Cuban cigar.


I don’t believe leaders are born. Leadership is a skill, you can get better at it and you can develop your potential, maybe a little, maybe a great deal, depending on your method.


Reflecting on my own development as a leader here’s what I remember from the conversation on how I got better and how I’m still learning.


Start young.   My earliest leadership lessons came on the sports pitch. As a team Captain playing U11 Rugby and cricket, some exceptional games teachers gave me a remarkable amount of responsibility. I made a lot of mistakes, some of which I’m still ashamed off. I learnt some emotional control, how to manage frustration and anger – slowly figured out on the side-lines or facing the wall in PE classes and I learnt a lot about encouraging others and getting the best out of them.


Corporate leadership development programmes have a poor track record of success and despite the never-ending stream of books (& blog posts!) leadership over time does not improve. A major reason for this is we don’t start young enough. In other high skill domains talent development starts young, we do this deliberately with Football academies, we rarely do this deliberately with young leaders.


Teach. When you help to teach anybody a great benefit to you is that you learn more yourself, both from the experience and from the insight and interaction with others. On the teaching staff at Sandhurst and Staff College I had to digest and understand my own experience, as you can’t teach or explain what is tacit. What I could have done better in command appointments was to spend more time deliberately developing my team leaders leadership skills.


Read – (& take notes). Learn from the experience of others. As Thomas Edison observed,


‘I regard it as a criminal waste of time to go through the slow and painful ordeal of ascertaining things for one’s self if these same things have already been ascertained and made available by others’


Good mentors are not always readily available but good books always are. Until I left the military I read very few books, if any, on the subject of leadership, but I read a lot of books about leaders in many fields and across the span of history. Having only an average memory I also took notes and now I have a resource of notebooks with the key points from hundreds of titles. Note taking seems out of fashion but having worked with a lot of high performers in multiple domains I would say that one thing they invariably have in common is that they are obsessive note takers.


Watch what other people do. Seniors, juniors and peers, I learnt things from all of them. I was lucky to have some great role models, especially amongst my peers and in the Senior Non Commissioned Officer’s (NCO’s) I was privileged to learn from. These NCOs were often guardrails to my weaknesses and poor judgment as well as exceptional tutors and guides. From all of these influences I have borrowed and copied, taking ideas and inspiration and knitting them into my own approach. I was lucky too to see and experience some truly awful leadership, nobody enjoys that, you suffer it but there were also a lot of important lessons absorbed.



Reflect – accept the truth & listen to what you’re being told. Often this is painful because we are works in progress, improving demands long periods of struggle and inadequacy that are far short of mastery. Impatience and ego intrude and we all too easily fool ourselves. Ray Dalio runs Bridgewater Capital one of the worlds largest and most successful hedge funds – no doubt in large part because of their obsessive performance focus on the behaviours of every team member. Ray’s observation is exactly right:


Pain + Reflection = Progress


My final observation is these points range over a 30-year period. Leaders are not born but neither should developing excellence take decades of experience. At the end of my military service I wished I could have travelled back in time to be able to speak to my younger self. Leadership development can happen far quicker and effectively when we are well informed and deliberate about it, it should not be left to osmosis, and the happenstance of experience.

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