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Leadership - it takes Knowledge, Skills and Talent

Harold Geneen, the legendary CEO of ITT said: “Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned”? Or, maybe he should have said that leadership can be taught, but it cannot be learned easily?

Many people believe that, if adequately trained, anyone can become a leader. Others see leaders as humans made of special material, shaped through genetics and environment. As proof they offer a list of uneducated CEOs with brilliant careers, none of them having a management school diploma. Moreover, the most successful among them have been college dropouts, from IT industry prophets like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell and Larry Ellison, to the influential and popular Ted Turner, David Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey, Roman Abramovich, John Lennon, and Lady Gaga. Most of these people probably think that while education may not be completely redundant, if you are not born a leader, or a star, no leadership or starship program in the world would help you become one.

If they are right, we don’t need books on leadership. Luckily, there are many who believe that leaders also emerge through training and self-development. They advocate continuous learning, leadership seminars, MBA programs, trainings and workshops. They put their faith in trained leaders and the fact that, in the end, knowledge always pays off.

Is there a correlation between knowledge and leadership? Do the experts in a given field make the best leadership material? In the early 1990s, a former McKinsey consultant, Lou Gerstner, was appointed CEO of the staggering IBM. Presenting his strategy to the management board, he surprised them all by admitting that he knew nothing about computers. That’s not an issue, he added, you are the greatest experts in the industry, and the company is not in trouble because we don’t produce excellent computers and software. The board members were shocked; their leader publicly admitted he knew nothing about the core business. But what he did know was at the time much more important for the company. They had to deal with problems of lost vision, rigid organization, reduced motivation and lack of respect for customers.

The story addresses the classical question: Should the leader be an expert? There is always a need to balance professional competence with human skills, technology with organizational culture, efficient use of resources with motivation for success, good annual income statements with a solid long-term vision. That’s why a good leader is not necessarily a top expert in the field. Successful leadership calls for both, professional expertise and human systems management skills.

One answer leads to another question: Are leaders born or made? I guess the best answer is: Yes! People without a genuine leadership personality, be it inherited through genetics or installed by a supportive environment, are never going to become great leaders. But the other side of the coin is equally important. A path to bad leadership is paved with lack of motivation to study and self-develop, disinterest in theories, and inability to learn from mistakes.

The Gallup Organization researchers Buckingham and Coffman indicate that the individual success of a leader (or a boss) depends on harmony (or a proper balance) among his knowledge, skills and talents.

Knowledge deals with what it is about. It is acquired by studying, reading, attending seminars or searching the Internet. Leadership knowledge is found in books, articles, websites and libraries; it is based on facts and can be obtained from expert lectures or from consultants.

Knowledge is easily transferable. Faster or slower, sooner or later, anyone is able to learn anything from others. Throughout our lives, we are trained by teachers, parents, co-workers, bosses, tutors, professors and consultants. Theoretically, all individuals can master all knowledge on leadership, subject to time, intellectual ability and motivation constraints.

Skills have to do with how things are done; they are practical abilities, responsible for better or worse work performance. There are specific skills like dancing, skiing, driving a car, riding a bicycle, maneuvering a boat, using computers, mastering foreign languages, solving mathematical problems, or bookkeeping. Also, there are mental abilities to analyze balance sheets, to quickly get the overall picture, to listen carefully, to resolve conflicts, to convince or to sell.

Skills are acquired and developed through practice; in a way, they reflect accumulated experience. Leaders with a lot of practice may be less knowledgeable but have more skills. Years of experience and a growing number of ballgames makes us all more skillful.

Skills, like knowledge, can be transferred from one person to another. That’s what all the trainers, teachers, mentors, bosses and coaches are for. Even though mastering a skill seems to be more complicated than acquiring knowledge, most people are capable of doing it right.

Talents are personal traits or characteristics by which we differ one from another. There are traits common to all people (a need to be loved, a need for physical safety). Some people are similar to certain groups of people (ambitious individuals, risk takers or perfectionists tend to look and behave alike). However, some of our traits could be quite unique. Here, the term “talent” does not mean a special gift (i.e., talent for music). Rather, it describes a trait that “differentiates” (e.g., to be a risk taker, and to be a person who plays it safe, are two opposing talents).

Unlike knowledge and skills, a talent cannot be acquired from others nor can it be transferred from one person to another (except by genetics). We are either born with a talent or discover it while being brought up, or we don’t have it.

There are many anecdotes about talents and personality. Here is one: Great maestro Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart attended a concert by a twelve-year-old child prodigy. At the end, Mozart praised the kid and his superb performance. The proud child responded: I want to become a composer like you. When should I start? Mozart told him to be patient; it would take years of study, a lot of work and many more concerts. Not pleased with the answer, the boy said: But you were already composing at the age of six. Yes, answered Mozart, but I never had to ask anybody when to start.

Obviously, everyone can master leadership knowledge and skills if they try hard enough. However, leadership talents cannot be acquired in any management school. In case you have inherited them, people will probably call you a born leader.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no ideal combination of knowledge, skills and talent that guarantee anyone to become a perfect leader. The world’s best leaders are very different; each of them is characterized by a unique combination of knowledge, skill and talents. Buffon is well known for saying: “His style is the man himself.” Personality is the content and the form, the inside and the outside, the inherited and the acquired. These are inseparable. A good leader adopts a style and develops an approach that suits his personality. You cannot fake it; you must be it. That’s why the perfect leader is best described as a perfect combination of imperfect traits that fit together perfectly.

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