Ask an Expert October 2018

Ask an Expert

Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that what’s getting in the way of developing leaders has more to do with myths and mindsets than with the lack of leadership talent. Can you explain what you believe are the mindsets and myths that are keeping leaders from building leadership skills?

A: Twyla Tharp, American dancer and choreographer most notably with the American Ballet Theater, once said, “When you’re stuck in a rut, you have to question everything except your ability to get out of it.” Her comment reminds us that being in a rut is part mindset and part skill set. And her book The Creative Habit  is a great read if you would like to explore more about her.

What keeps individuals from effectively leading is not any particular deficiency in their character or lack of a specific skill. It is more often than not a mindset that makes them question their ability to lead. For example, many people believe that leadership is something you either have or you don’t. In fact, the most common question my co-author Barry Posner and I receive is whether leaders are born or are they made. When people ask us this question, we always have the same response: We’ve never met a leader who was not born. Now you might say, “That’s not fair. It‘s a trick question. Everyone is born.” That’s precisely the point. Every one of us is born, and every one of us the necessary material to become a leader.

Let’s get something straight right from the start. Leadership is not some mystical quality that only a few people have and everyone else doesn’t. Leadership is not preordained. Leadership is not a gene. It is not a trait. There is just no hard evidence to suggest that leadership is imprinted in the DNA of some people and not others.

But for those whose mindset suggests that leadership is built into the DNA of a select few, they likely will see themselves unable to improve, because they believe they don’t have the abilities to become better leaders. (There are other related myths and mindsets that inhibit leadership development, and we discuss them in our book, Learning Leadership

Our research, and that of hundreds of others using The Leadership Challenge® model in their academic studies, reveals that this conclusion is empirically wrong. In more than 35 years of collecting data using the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI®) practically no one who has completed the instrument—either as a leader or an observer—has scored a zero across all five leadership practices. To be precise, our latest research, featured in the sixth edition of The Leadership Challenge tells us that there are only 0.00013% of people with absolutely zero capacity to lead. In other words,

Do the math and look around. The chance of finding someone with a score of zero in a 100-person organization is zero. In a 1,000-person organization, the probability of finding someone with a score of zero is zero. In a 100,000-person organization, the chance of finding someone with a score of zero is still nearly zero. The bottom line is that the notion that only a few people have the talent to lead is a myth.

These results underscore our assertion that everyone is capable of engaging in the leadership behaviors identified as essential to achieving record-setting standards of excellence. The inescapable fact is not that people aren’t leading (or capable of leadership) but that people are not leading frequently enough! How about you? Are you leading frequently enough?

Back to Twyla Tharp’s point that we should question everything except our ability to get out of a rut. When it comes to improving leadership, question everything except the ability to lead. More likely than not the capacity is there, it’s just not being exercised frequently enough. Then the question becomes, “What’s getting in the way of demonstrating the behaviors more frequently?”

Jim Kouzes
is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., he was also the recipient of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by Trust across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of over 30 books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the just-released Stop Selling & Start Leading (with additional co-author Deb Calvert), fully-revised and updated sixth edition of the international bestseller, The Leadership Challenge, and Learning Leadership, selected by Strategy+Business as one of the 2016 Best Business Books of Year.



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