Can you learn to become a leader?

Dear SJ,

I am a young ambitious thirty-something and manager of an operational team. The company where I work has 3 operational managers, one for each business unit.

We report to the COO, who is a charismatic leader close to his retirement. His replacement is currently being recruited, both internally and externally.

I would like to apply for the job. However, in terms of leadership, I am nowhere near our COO. My question is: can you develop leadership? Many claim it’s innate. Should I drop my application?


In Dubio

Dear In Dubio,

What I read is that you want to are eager to grow, and that you seriously consider the upcoming opportunity. But that you are unsure whether you will be able to manage the leadership qualities you saw in your COO.

Before I formulate an answer to your first question, I would like to dwell on the motivation of your ambition. Why do you want this COO job?

Is it because you are tired of your current job? Or because you want people to look up to you the way you do to the COO? Or because you can make decisions faster? Those are not the right motives…

If you want the entire organization to develop further, make a difference through innovation and co-creation and thus make a contribution to society, then I say your motivation is on track!.

The good news is: your brain can adapt! Think of learning to drive a car: initially requiring a lot of effort, while in the long term it goes smooth, almost "without thinking". The continuous process of renewing and reorganizing brain cells, creating new structures or networks is known in science as neuroplasticity. When new habits are practiced, new connections are formed. With discipline and perseverance, you too can become a leader!

Hereafter I have noted some critical success factors that require courage, thorough attention and awareness during your growth towards leadership.

1. Are you a realistic optimist?

Pessimism puts a damper on the organization. With too many "pink glasses" you don't see the real problems and you lose credibility. A pragmatic leader who is not a dreamer but who comes to work with great enthusiasm and optimism is usually an effective and respected leader.

2. Your ethics and values ​​have a major impact.

You only make decisions that meet the values ​​of the organization. Be very clear to the employees, do what you say and say what you do while expecting others to do the same. In this way you create an ethical organizational culture that lasts, in good and bad days.

3. Are you open to criticism (and the truth?)

You won't get far with yes-man. It's important to have people around you who are downright honest, who bring you good and bad news, who don't sugarcoat. Your ability to see criticism as a gift will create the right environment for open communication.

4. How good are your communication skills?

Each communication is based on the motivation of the topic: why something is important for stakeholders and for the organization. More importantly, listening and talking go before writing. Many e-mail has turned out to be too hurtful after a night's sleep ...

5. Can you see the bigger picture?

A leader who is capable of reflecting the mission, goals, roles and responsibilities against the bigger picture is considered an inspiring leader.

6. Do you understand the impact of your actions on your work and your employees?

No one is infallible, everyone has an ego, pitfalls…. and there’s nothing wrong with that. Provided we are aware of it and can control it to minimize the impact on others.

7. How do you react under stress?

Following on from the previous: under stress there are 3 possible scenarios: fight, fly or freeze. Be aware and practice to control.

8. How accessible do you want to be? 

I mean, of course, more than an open door policy.

What attitude should you adopt when entering a conference room, giving a speech, or having a conversation. Are you able to show the right level of genuine concern? Its intensity will contribute to your success.

With these tips you can conclude whether you are willing to work on your own leadership development. And you will also have found an answer to the question that only you can answer. Namely whether or not you should submit your application.

Good luck!


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