Can Leadership Be Taught?

I’ve had a recent love hate relationship with Twitter. There are times that I go and check my feed and I just don’t see anything that I want to respond to, and at others times the conversation drags me in and I can spend hours chatting. The latter happened recently when I was online one night and happened to see the #SocialLeader chat in my feed. The official topic was “The Threat and Promise of Autonomous Teams” and leadership was a focus of some of the questions the host asked. A comment was made saying that some leadership skills couldn’t be taught, and I didn’t quite agree with that.

Can leadership be learned? Photo Credit: Svilen Milev /
Can leadership be learned? Photo Credit: Svilen Milev /

First let’s define what attributes a good leader should have. And since I don’t expect you to take my word for it, here’s what Peter Economy lists in his article on, The 9 Traits That Define Great Leadership: Awareness, Decisiveness, Empathy, Accountability, Confidence, Honesty, Focus, and Inspiration. If those are the traits of a good leader, the question is are we born with or without those traits, or can they be acquired or learned? Can leadership be taught?

I do believe that some people are born natural leaders. Some people just happen to have it in them to lead and they can lead well. They don’t get nervous in the spotlight, they make good decisions quickly, and motivating others seemingly comes easy to them. If you happen to be one that has these gifts naturally, you’re at an advantage. If you don’t happen to be one of these people, are you just out of luck?

There’s a difference between learning a skill and being comfortable using it. If public speaking doesn’t come naturally it’s still something that you can practice and learn to be good at, but that doesn’t mean it makes it much easier to get in front of a crowd and talk. Case in point, I was recently watching The Next Food Network Star, and one contestant clearly was not comfortable in front of the camera. Towards the end of the season, he was able to learn how to relax and embrace being on camera. But it didn’t make it any easier for him, and I’ll bet that if you asked him that he would tell you the same. It is a skill that he didn’t naturally have, but had to acquire.

Just because people seem to be born with some leadership traits doesn’t automatically make them good leaders. There are plenty of people that love to take command and throw their voice around and act with confidence, but can’t get anyone to follow them.

Ultimately I do think that you can learn to be a leader, and that it’s not either you have it or you don’t. What are your thoughts?

Sphere Of Influence: Phil Molyneux with Advice on Leadership

Sphere Of Influence: Phil Molyneux with Advice on Leadership

I am really happy and honored to be able to feature Phil Molyneux here in my Sphere of Influence series. A previous blog post I wrote, “A Glimpse of Real Leadership”, was inspired by Phil. Phil really changed the way I looked at senior leadership at big brands. As a worker bee, it was easy for me to think that there would be no relationship between myself and someone at the top like Phil, but I was wrong. All of the credit for initiating contact goes to Phil. From the moment we were introduced to him, he was open and honest and genuinely wanted feedback. He set up an email address where everyone could send him feedback and he promised to respond and he did. He always wanted to hear new ideas and suggestions of new ways to do things. Whenever we spoke or met, even in passing, he was engaging. When he spoke to you, you knew that you had his attention, and that he wasn’t looking past you and on to the next person. He empowered people. If you gave him a good suggestion he wanted you to be a part of the solution. A genuine people person, Phil was well respected and liked by everyone that I’ve spoken to. I’ve never seen the level of public support from employees for Phil with anyone else I’ve worked for, and that says a lot. I was able to get the opportunity to ask Phil some questions about leadership, and I’m thankful for him for taking the time so share his insights.

Me: I really admired the fact that you wanted to hear feedback from everyone, no matter who they were in the company. Why is it important for leaders of businesses to hear feedback from all of their employees and staff, not just their direct reports?

Phil Molyneux: I believe that everyone in any organization is capable of bringing rich and beneficial ideas to help the company move positively forward. Top management in large companies cannot see all that is going on, the positives and the not so positives, what is working and what needs attention. Management also does not have all the answers. By connecting with as many people inside the organization you gain rich inputs and information that may not make it to the board room, real issues that may not get solved through the normal reporting routes. In addition, if you are an authentic leader and wish to treat the people in your teams the way you would like to be treated you have to make connections and relationships, it really helps motivation, engagement and hence productivity, everybody wins, it helps if you enjoy meeting you wider team, I know I do.

Me: Another thing that I was impressed with that I mentioned earlier was the fact that you empowered people to be a part of the solutions that they proposed. Why did you feel it was important?

Phil Molyneux: That is very simple, if people bring proposals on business ideas, process improvements or innovation and are passionate about it, I can think of no better way than to have them own it. By empowering people to go out and get it down, the energy levels and commitment to succeed skyrockets. It makes it a fun and exciting environment to work in. I get a thrill from seeing people succeed when they see the benefit of their work to the company as a whole.

Me: Having a team that supports you and will willingly go to bat for you as a leader is so important. What is some advice that you can give about motivating a team to do that?

Phil Molyneux: I have a simple philosophy about leadership, unless you have the people behind you, you won’t get much done at all. To get the team to go bat on your side, you must connect with people at all levels, you need to be authentic in your leadership and really care about the people who are giving their all for the company and essentially you as a leader. Thank you’s go a long way and are not given out enough in the day to day working environment. Of course you must have a strategy that everyone one can understand and see the value of, you must structure the needed work so everyone can see their part to play but the little things like a smile, a thank you, making time to talk with people up and down the organization makes all the difference in building a truly engaged and motivated team.

You can connect with Phil here: Twitter, LinkedIn.

A Glimpse Of Real Leadership

A Glimpse Of Real Leadership
Is your leader worth following? Photo credit © VinothChandar
There are plenty of blogs and articles devoted to leadership, and it kind of makes me wonder if there is a shortage of really good leaders. A short while ago I had the honor of experiencing an example of what real leadership is, and I’ll never forget it.

The experience wasn’t some grand presentation or speech, or award winning plan or huge sale. It wasn’t some martyr syndrome act of perceived sacrifice either. Instead it was a simple text message to ask if I was ok. That’s it. No grandiose chest thumping self-promotion, just a quiet, simple text message. In fact the only spotlight it will ever receive is due to this blog post. It was an ego-free, kind act of unselfishness.

This person that I had the pleasure of working with understood the value of relationships and the value of people, when it came to building a team. This person also understood the power of motivation and knew how to motivate others. And that was through transparency and a dedication to building genuine relationships. Whenever I spoke to this person, I never got the sense that they were looking past me or uninterested in the conversation. This person understood that a leader is nothing without a team to back them up. I’d work for this person again in a heartbeat.

Do you have any personal examples of real leadership to share? I’d love to hear them.

Are You An “Un-motivational Expert” In The Workplace?

Are you sapping all of the energy out of your employees? Photo © Cristiano Betta
Are you sapping all of the energy out of your employees? Photo © Cristiano Betta
In this day and age, jobs are more than just a paycheck. Employees want to be challenged and motivated by the jobs they hold. Motivating employees can be tough; each person is unique and can respond to different motivational tactics differently. But sometimes we can demotivate our employees without realizing it. In no particular order, here are some things you can do to demotivate your employees.

Don’t give them any goals
You might think that the daily responsibilities that each employee has is enough to motivate them, but I would disagree. Your workers need a goal to work towards. Goals give employees something to aim for, something to achieve. The potential success of achieving goals set for them motivates employees to do their best work.

Give them goals that are too easy
Easy goals to attain are a quick way of building up someone’s confidence and keeps people interested, initially. But after a while easy goals just encourage laziness. Eventually people will know the minimal effort they’ll need to give to attain the easy goals and they’ll be done.

Give them goals that are impossible
The complete opposite of having no goals or goals that are too easy is giving your employees goals that are impossible to attain. This might work at the start of a new job, but constant failure gets old very fast, especially when people realize that it no matter how hard they try, they’ll fail anyway.

Don’t empower them
A really quick way to demotivate those working for you is to give them no responsibility. If your employees have no decision making ability whatsoever, chances are they aren’t going to stick around for very long.

Micromanage them
Along the same lines of empowerment, or lack thereof, always watching your employees every move to make sure they’re doing things the way you want them too is another really quick way to demotivate them.

Don’t listen to their ideas
Yes, your staff was hired to do a job, but they were also hired because they brought some skill that was deemed useful to the organization. Let’s face it, managers don’t know everything, nor should they be expected to. If you consistently shoot down your employees ideas, or don’t even bother to ask for any, they’ll slowly stop contributing.

Put them where they don’t fit
As a manager, you should know what your employees’ strengths and weaknesses are. If you don’t, then you’re placed in the wrong role. Placing people in roles that they’re not suited for is a quick way for people to lose interest.

I would love to hear your feedback on this topic. I think at times we focus a lot of on what motivates others (and rightfully so) that we don’t consider the opposite which could be happening right at this moment unintentionally. What did I miss? In your experience, what other ways have you been demotivated at work?

Same Old Different Day. Sound Familiar?

Done anything new lately? © Leyram Odacrem
Done anything new lately? © Leyram Odacrem
Do you find yourself using this phrase often? Same old, different day. I do, but usually it’s when someone is asking me how I’m doing or how my day is going. It’s a great response for implying routine, applicable for things like the daily commute to work. But if this response describes your business model, then you might be in for some tough times in the future. Businesses that want to get ahead and stay ahead need to keep pushing the envelope to stay better than the competition. That doesn’t mean they need to dive into everything that’s new and up and coming, but at the very least they must explore all options. This direction, or change of direction, must come from the top. The leader of your business, big or small, must be an advocate for change and innovation.

Don’t fear the unknown
As a leader you can’t fear the unknown. You have to have a healthy respect of the unknown, but you can’t fear it. I had the privilege of coaching basketball for 10 years, and for those 10 years I found myself having to constantly change things in order to stay ahead of the competition. Some of those changes meant trying new plays, which meant more failure before success, but it was those news plays that kept our opponents off guard and guessing as to what we would do next. I also found that trying new plays was motivating for the players. Implementing new plays was risky, but I limited the risk by doing a lot of research and studying first. I was able to implement plays that best suited the skills of my players. Don’t fear the unknown, instead have a healthy respect for the unknown and do your research and then apply the best strategy. I think that you will find that if you try implement new things with a clear strategy and plan for action, your employees will be challenged and motivated.

Always be willing to learn
It is impossible to know it all. While I was coaching basketball I always said that the minute I stopped wanting to learn more about the game and how to be a better coach is the minute I should stop coaching. After being successful it’s very easy to fall into a routine and become comfortable and complacent. But being too comfortable and complacent will open the door for competition to catch you and jump ahead. So I kept learning by watching basketball and studying the methods and plays that successful college coaches used for their teams. While putting in new plays kept the team ahead of the competition, the players were motivated by my desire to always want to better the team. It is also important that you learn from those you lead. Not only will this motivate them, but they will also bring in new ideas that you have not thought of.

Sometimes you need new faces
Rotating the same people into the different positions just gives you the same ideas from different positions. Sometimes in order to get new ideas you need to find new people. Enough said.

How do you change up the “same old different day” mentality? What methods of change do you find work well?

What’s Your Value Add?

Question Mark
What have you done lately? © Eleaf

I remember having a conversation with someone (a while back) and they asked me about projects that I had worked on. After going through my roles on the various projects, I’ll never forget what was said to me:

“You use the word ‘team’ and ‘we’ a lot when describing what you did, and that’s great because I know you’re a team player, but what have YOU done?”

The question stopped me dead in my tracks. Sure I had been a “valuable” part of a team that completed multiple major and groundbreaking projects successfully, and I was always praised for my hard work and dedication, but what did I contribute? Outside of taking direction and completing task after task in a timely manner did I do anything of significance? Did I lead any of the projects in any way, or did I bring new ideas to the table and implement them? The answer was no, and I told myself that had to change.

I’m not saying that having a good work ethic and dedication to the job isn’t valuable, because it is. But to me it’s not enough to set you apart from anyone else. It doesn’t make you irreplaceable. Working hard and being dedicated to your job is something that every employee SHOULD be. Your value add is when you’re proactive about things and bring new ideas to the table.

Have you ever thought about your value add where you work? What sets you apart from those around you?

The Importance of Setting Fixed Goals to Achieve Results

Training Sunrise
One of the benefits of Super Spartan training is seeing photo opportunities like this early in the morning
I have to say that I’ve not always been a big believer in setting goals. When I was younger goals weren’t important, it was all about the here and now. I couldn’t or didn’t want to think about planning things ahead of time and if I thought something was too hard to accomplish I probably didn’t try. I’ve grown up since then and now I do believe in setting goals, but my problem has been that I sometimes set floating goals, not fixed goals. I describe a floating goal that doesn’t have a hard end date or set time length for which to achieve the goal, isn’t clearly defined or concrete, and clearly has no consequence for missing it. I also define “floating” goals mostly as concepts or ideas that you generally want to progress towards but don’t want to measure. While I believe that there should be flexibility in setting goals, if all of your goals are “floating”, you might find that you’re not progressing as fast as you’d like. Signing up for the Super Spartan Race in September 2013 is teaching me the value of setting fixed goals.

If you’ve never heard of it before, the Spartan Race is “the global leader in Obstacle Racing since 2005, designed by seven insane ultra athletes and a Royal Marine.” You can find out more about the race here, but in a nutshell it’s a brutal obstacle course race that will ultimately test your physical ability and your will. It’ll be painful, grueling, dirty, tiring, a big challenge, but most important right now is that it’s a fixed goal. So here’s what I’ve learned (in no particular order):

Make your goal concrete
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes goals are just concepts or thoughts. For example, one of my goals was to get back in shape. While it’s a noble goal, and it sounds concrete, it’s rather vague. There’s no measurement and time frame for this goal. Getting back in shape can almost mean anything from dropping a few pounds to being more active. Now that I’ve joined the Spartan Race I have a hard deadline to meet. If I don’t start training for this event it will be incredibly painful to complete, and I would be putting the completion of the race in jeopardy. Plus I’m doing the race with a team of people and I would hate to be the one holding them back. Having this race as a goal also forces me to start training now, and hard. I’m not going to be able to just run around a track a couple of times and call it a day. It’s going to take a lot of running and a lot of other physical workouts to be prepared for this race. Have a concrete goal that you can measure with a fixed end date or time frame, so that you stay motivated to keep working towards it.

Challenge yourself, but be realistic
Sometimes we set goals that are too easy to attain, and while it might feel great to have reached those goals we realize afterwards that we could have done so much more. Sometimes we set goals that are impossible to attain, and when that happens it’s easy to become discouraged and unmotivated because we either can’t hit them. We might even sabotage ourselves from the beginning by not wanting to work towards a goal we cannot meet. The Super Spartan Race is going to be very hard to complete, and my goal is to complete the race, not to set any records. I understand that I am not in any physical condition to complete the race at the moment, but by September I plan to be. But while I plan to be in such a condition to finish the race, I realize that I will not be an elite athlete by this time so trying to compete to finish in one of the top spots would be very unrealistic. Challenge yourself when you set a goal. Make yourself work hard to meet a goal, but be realistic.

Slow and steady wins the race
Ok, so I ripped this last one off from the “Tortoise and the Hare”, but I’m sure I’m not the first to do that. It would be easy for me to want to dive into physical training and go all out right away in preparation for this race, and that would be foolish. It would be foolish because I would most likely hurt myself because I haven’t been as physically active as I should be. My body isn’t ready for full tilt workout and cardio sessions every day. It’s something that I have to gradually and consistently get into. It’s like people who say that they need to go on diets so they decide to cut out all sugars and carbs all at once, only to have a snack later on in the day and feel like a failure. The reality is that I’m not going to become extremely physically fit overnight, just like how I’m also not going to lose 10 pounds overnight either. So when you set a goal, keep in mind that it’s going to take time to achieve it. And if you can turn working towards your goal into a routine by consistently working at it, you will achieve it. This is another reason why it’s beneficial to set a goal with a fixed time period or end date.

So those are three things that I’ve learned so far about goal setting thanks to this Super Spartan Race. Setting fixed goals, instead of moving targets, will help you achieve the results you want. I’d love to hear what you think about these three things, so please feel free to comment here and share. Also I’d like to know how you go about setting goals, so please share those thoughts and ideas as well. Oh and if you’re curious about how my training is going, I will be posting updates here. Feel free to follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook too, because I’m sure I’ll be sharing there as well.