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Simplicity: Are great leaders born or made?


Born leaderTrevor Gay looks at what it takes to be a good leader, and suggests that training is all very well, but true leadership greatness comes naturally, and isn't learned.

To me, leadership and management are as different as chalk and cheese. My views have been formed over many years as a manager in the NHS and particularly as a result of my research when studying leadership from the perspective of family doctors in 1997/8.

Good managers do not necessarily make good leaders and good leaders do not necessarily make good managers. Each has a distinct role. Leadership qualities are less tangible and measurable whilst most management processes can be measured. This is best summed up by Warren Bennis, who said: "managers do things right … leaders do the right things".

The elusive leadership quality

There is clearly something about effective leaders that makes them stand out from the crowd. I find it impossible to identify and quantify that elusive quality. When I look back through my career, I've had bosses who are clearly leaders and those who are clearly managers.

The leaders among my past bosses:

  • had high levels of integrity

  • were focused on the bigger picture

  • were not comfortable with 'intense detail'

  • made me feel part of their vision

  • did not punish mistakes – seeing them as a learning opportunity

  • challenged the status quo

  • were are not afraid of unpopularity
  • The managers among my past bosses:

  • were process driven

  • were comfortable with detail

  • were more interested in the bottom line than the wider vision

  • wanted to measure everything

  • were not comfortable challenging the corporate view
  • I think the difference is around the words hard and soft. My experience of effective managers is that they tend to be very good at the 'hard stuff'. They are concerned with measurable outcomes – sometimes obsessed with process. They appear to be driven by the need to prove their effectiveness in tangible ways. Leaders are also interested in the soft stuff: the immeasurable, the anecdote, the story.

    Photo of Trevor Gay"I doubt that people can learn how to be a leader from reading, studying or listening to lectures."

    I recall the story of a stressed manager, worried about the upcoming annual staff appraisals he 'had to do' for employees in his team. A few days later he was relaxed – the stress had gone. He explained that he had now completed all appraisals. What he had done was take out appraisal files, ticked boxes and updated them without speaking to any member of his staff. As far as he was concerned 'doing appraisals' was literally filling in forms and ticking boxes.

    The focus of the leader

    Effective leaders in my career are generally not so interested in the detail of process but they need to be assured there is one. Paradoxically, the effective leader will be interested in something that may appear very trivial to non leaders. For example, many of us have worked in organisations that proclaim:

    'Our staff are our greatest asset.'
    'We are an equal opportunities employer.'

    Picture now a wet, cold and dark winter morning, a 6am early shift for the cleaner who parks her car in the staff car park 200 yards from the entrance. As she fights her way through the cold wind and rain to the entrance she notices the empty car park spaces reserved for directors and the chief executive immediately outside the main entrance. She cannot help thinking that the mission statement somehow doesn't ring true.

    The effective leader will be interested in the feelings of that cleaner. Even if the leader cannot solve the parking problem, the fact that they are interested at all will spread around the organisation quicker than the speed of light. Quite often the leader will also solve the problem of the car parking. 'Small' things are important – leadership is not only about the big picture.

    Managers who are leaders

    Good leadership is usually underpinned by good management. In my experience good leaders employ good managers and surround themselves with people who buy into the vision of the leader. The leader is always looking for improvement and though not a 'change junkie', a good leader constantly questions the status quo, looking for improvement.

    "Some of the greatest leaders in history never received training in leadership – it came to them naturally and we should celebrate that mystical quality."

    This is best illustrated by people like Sir Alex Ferguson, the leader at Manchester United - the most successful football team in Britain for the last 15 years. Sir Alex often says: 'We need to improve this team'. Although Ferguson is called the manager of Manchester United, to me he is the leader. I suspect he is not interested in the detail of the processes involved in running the biggest football club in the world. And yet there are legendary tales of his detailed knowledge of what goes on in and around the club. It is also interesting that he has graduated to his current high standing without formal training in management.

    We can learn a lot about management and leadership by studying sport. Another famous football manager was Bill Shankly of Liverpool Football Club who said "always change a winning team". Shankly was another leader with an impressive list of achievements and his formal management training was nil.

    Both of these characters possess the ability to inspire others to sign up to their vision which, I believe, separates leaders from managers. Somehow these leaders create followers who will go the extra mile. I suggest it is not – in their case – an academic understanding of the science of management or leadership. It is probably some personal characteristic that is not tangible.

    Born or made?

    I suggest that leaders are generally born and not made. I doubt that people can learn how to be a leader from reading, studying or listening to lectures. There is something that makes leaders stand out from the rest of us. Leadership training is worthwhile though - it is possible to teach leadership competencies in the classroom. But I suspect what can emerge through that is a competent leader.

    The outstanding leader will not need that training. Some of the greatest leaders in history never received training in leadership – it came to them naturally and we should celebrate that mystical quality – even if we cannot measure it.

    At the same time let's remember that leaders are the minority and most of us mere mortals are very effective foot soldiers - and we should also celebrate that. Many argue that wars are won by foot soldiers and not colonels. There is no question that managers and leaders are both important - both have a crucial role in organisations – but they are different.

    Trevor Gay is an independent leadership and management coach, trainer, consultant and author with a self-confessed obsession for simplicity and liberating front-line staff

    To see more reflections from Trevor you can read his last article on or visit his Simplicity Blog


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