A few weeks ago I was in a meeting about leadership. (Ah, the joys of academia — the luxury of talking for two hours about leadership). One of the comments was that leadership is an obligation. For some reason, this really got my back up. My response was downright visceral. And, until today, I couldn’t figure out why.
In the course of a discussion over coffee at my favourite Starbucks (I should really pay them rent), one of my new friends asked me if leadership is innate or if it is learned. The answer is that it is a bit of both. Research tells us that leadership is related to personality traits such as openness and extraversion. So some of us are more likely predisposed to taking on leadership roles. However, we can also learn, through experience, how to become a better leader. The more we practice leadership, the more effective we can become.
But leadership is also linked to cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence and social intelligence. These emotional management skills have been shown to be very important in our perceptions of leadership effectiveness. The ability to manage the socio-emotional relationships in a group has been shown to be important in groups. Some of us have better skills than others in relationship management. Here too, the research tells us that we can improve our emotional intelligence.
What the science tells us is that leadership requires a multi-faceted set of skills. And that not all of us have that set of skills. And some of us are motivated to develop our leadership skills, while others are not. Research shows, if anything, a sense of obligation, actually reduces our intrinsic motivation. What motivates us to want to lead? I don’t know the answer. But I think it might have something to do with the idea that there is some intrinsic satisfaction to leading a group of people to accomplish something that has meaning. Powerful leadership is about really caring about something and seeing that it has greater meaning than the next quarter’s profits. Maybe I’m personalizing this too much, but I just can’t bring myself to care about something that is just about obligation. I need that fire, that passion, before I can lead.