Are Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg or even Martin Luther King Jr. born great leaders?
The short answer is no, says Michael Useem, professor emeritus of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a leadership development consultant for a wide range of private, public and nonprofit companies. Useem says the ability to tutor, guide and galvanize people around you isn’t innate – it’s something you learn and develop over time.
And there’s no single strategy for acquiring these skills, Useem says: rather, you need to look at your successes and failures with an “open eye” and use those experiences to identify what you personally need to improve.
“Leadership is not something we are born with, it is not something in our DNA,” he told CNBC Make It. “We are learning it. We have to learn how to improve and become a great leader.”
Useem says he taught that lesson for years at Wharton, drawing on the scholarship of other experts and referring to real-life examples. Today, his favorite example is the “humiliating” fall of Matt Doherty, a former college basketball coach.
At age 37, in the first season of his first head coaching role, Doherty led the University of Notre Dame to the finals of the 1999-2000 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. This success immediately catapulted him to the prestigious position of head coach at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, in 2000.
But then, after just three years, Doherty was “suddenly, unceremoniously” forced to resign, Useem says. It’s believed to be over concerns about his treatment of players: A parent of players told the Greensboro News & Record that Doherty destroyed his son’s ‘confidence and self-esteem’, while another pointed to the abuse verbal during training.
“From there, he clearly needed to figure out why his leadership of the team had turned against him,” Useem said. “He had to learn.”
For his part, Doherty, the ex-coach says he considered himself a decent leader before coming to UNC, which made him feel an “immediate sense of failure” after his resignation.
“I started believing some headlines, I started believing maybe I wasn’t a good leader,” Doherty said. “And at the time, I thought maybe I wasn’t born a great leader.”
Doherty says he embarked on a personal “leadership journey” to figure out what was wrong – ending up in one of Useem’s leadership classes at Wharton is how the duo s is met.
The revelation that leadership is a trained skill, rather than a given, was “the most exciting thing to learn in my life at the time,” Doherty says. “I was so depressed. I was depressed. I never thought I would be a good leader until then.”
Doherty says the class taught him that he lacked an essential element of leadership: emotional intelligence. He had the skills to strategize as a coach, but not a natural ability to form strong emotional bonds with his players.
“We talk about core values – mine now are respect, trust, commitment, positivity. But these I only learned and developed after going through this leadership journey,” says Doherty, who went on to coach at two other schools. before becoming associate commissioner of the Atlantic 10 conference. Now he works off the field as an executive coach helping small and medium business owners.
Doherty says the journey is different for everyone. While he needed a lesson in emotional intelligence, others may lack entirely different elements of leadership. Useem says this is the crucial takeaway: whether you’re an entry-level employee or a CEO, you can’t just rely on your so-called natural traits to motivate those around you.
You also have to rely on the lessons you’ve learned along the way, Useem says: “We have to look at what we’ve been through – some great successes, some that are terrible disasters – and use that as a source of inspiration. teaching advice.”
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