During our Leadership LABs, managers often ask me the following question: “Do you think leadership is something you can develop… or is it just something you have or don’t have?”
To answer this question, I’m going to tell you the story of a young manager I worked with in a multinational.
From the stars to the gutter
This manager was offered individual coaching after being included in a talent-management programme and who subsequently went through an assessment process after which he was informed that he had “weak leadership”.
The first thing this manager told me in our first coaching session was: “First I’m in the talent programme and then I’m told I’m a weak leader! Unbelievable!”
The weight of expectations
In our second meeting I asked him about the assessment. He said, “Well, I thought they wanted a, you know, leader, so I made sure I made my opinions counted the most so I’d come out as the leader of the group. And this is what really annoys me: I managed to come out on top of the group and then they tell me I have to improve my leadership!”
I suggested that he hadn’t shown himself as a leader at the assessment, but had assumed the role of the type of leader he thought the company expected him to act like. I added that his low evaluation wasn’t an evaluation of his leadership capabilities, but of the role he had assumed.
The self-fulfilling prophecy
I asked him why he had adopted this role for the assessment. He opened up and said: “I was really surprised when I was selected for the Talent Management Programme. I’ve been trying to do my best with my team but I don’t believe I’m a leader. I think I was afraid that the assessors would see my limitations and so I assumed this role”.
He had unconsciously engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy: when confronted with a stressful situation (the assessment), he was so afraid of not being a leader that he assumed a fake leadership persona, which didn’t ring true to the assessors.
Our next meetings focussed on empowering him, by increasing his awareness of his own capabilities (at and outside of work) and on the results his team had achieved thanks to his approach.
He gradually gained confidence in his authentic leadership abilities, while giving less and less importance to the kind of leadership behaviours he thought the company expected from him.
Giving yourself permission
At the end of our coaching sessions, this manager was asked to go through another assessment, to measure his development.
A few weeks later he called me and said: “This time I nailed it! They told me I’d made huge progress in my leadership skills!” I asked him what he’d done differently this time and he said, “I gave myself permission to just be myself”.
So can you develop leadership?
Going back to the question which is the title of this post, I think you can develop your leadership if you are willing to risk showing your authentic self.
In the case of limited leadership ability or, as in our story, “faked” leadership, the people around you, including your assessors, will only see pretence. On the other hand, if you humbly and honestly focus on your genuine experience and abilities, you are bound to grow as a leader.