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gary-hamel's picture

How to Tell If You’re a Natural Leader

I’ll bet you know a natural leader. Maybe you are one.

Maybe you’re a mom who started a support group for the parents of children with special needs.

Maybe you’re a concerned citizen who mobilized a group of preservation-minded neighbors to halt the destruction of a venerable old building.

Maybe you’re a churchgoer who convinced some of your fellow parishioners to help mentor at-risk kids.

Or maybe you simply organized your company’s first softball league.

In business, we talk a lot about leadership, and often take pains to differentiate between “leaders” and “managers.” Usually, this dichotomy hinges on the “vision thing.” Leaders imagine a future state and a chart a course to get there—they’re change agents. Managers simply preside over the status quo—they’re administrators.

While this distinction is useful, it doesn’t go far enough. Leaders in traditional organizations usually derive a large share of their power from their positions—that’s the case for CEOs, cabinet officers, and high school principals. In other settings, a leader’s power may reflect the freely given support of peers and followers—examples include Mother Teresa, Linux creator Linus Torvalds, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

There is a distinction, then, between a “titled” leader and a “natural” leader. A titled leader relies heavily on positional power to get things done; a natural leader is able to mobilize others without the whip of formal authority. These categories aren’t mutually exclusive. In his role as an Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu was both a titled leader and a natural leader. The distinction, though, is important. To see why, try a little thought experiment.

Think about your role at work. Now assume for a moment that you no longer have any positional authority—you’re not a project leader, a department head or vice president. There’s no title on your business card and you have no direct reports. Assume further that you have no way of penalizing those who refuse to do your bidding—you can’t fire them or cut their pay. Given this, how much could you get done in your organization? How much of a leader would you be if you no longer held even a tiny, tarnished scepter of bureaucratic power?

Here’s another way to unpack this. Ask yourself what percentage of your power and influence at work comes from . . .

(a) Your position-based prerogatives (which might include an ability to make unilateral decisions and commit resources)? (b) Your ability to impose sanctions (by issuing reprimands, denying promotions, etc.)? (c) Your preferential access to information, decision-makers and key meetings?

And what percentage rests on:

(d) Your widely acknowledged wisdom or expertise? (e) Your vision, values and praiseworthy personality traits? (f) Your unique organizational capabilities (including your ability to coalesce opinions, attract resources, plot strategy and sequence activities)?

In other words, how much of your power comes from what you are (the VP for HR, for example), and how much comes from who you are (a creative problem solver with a great personal network)?

Readers, what do you think makes a “natural” leader? Have you come across many?

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james-brown's picture

Expressing the thought in a verbal communication of a leader should be effective and clear the main theme behind it. The way of talking should be point to point, not confusing, not bias, have motivational power and has a great vale as like as the post of the leader etc. So we can say communication is one way getting success. Built an effective communication is really quite difficult.

It is one type of leadership skill. Thanks for sharing this blog. It is most valuable for a leader.

danny-ayers's picture
trying to be a leader and manger has become one of the toughest jobs ever.ive been a chef, sous chef, kitchen mgr. and now a asst. manager of a fast food restaurant which i really never saw me in this position. ive been in this position now for almost a year and each day is a struggle to accomplish my goals set forward. i have gained the trust of my crew but cant seem to move forward in my position. i am 75% leader and 100 % innovator/creative .......i strive to do the right things but always seemed damned if i do/ damned if i dont...........my gm is one that hardly ever shows any kind of praise and always finds the negative. its hard for me as a person to move up when all i feel is shoved down. so i came across this site and have been reading blogs once a day to try to visualize how i can achieve these goals. if any one has any constructive criticm to work w i would much appreciate this..............thankyou
shameem-farouk's picture
I think a couple of key attributes below are typical hallmarks of superior performing leaders:
  1. having a strong purpose or calling that one feels deeply passionate or concerned about (true leaders have a strong social rather than personal interests or purely for financial gain or growth). I believe this is where vision comes from. I think many of us agree that great leaders are visionary and I think the source of this is from finding your calling and sense of purpose in the social world. Great CEOs, heads of organizations or missionaries are able to identify a social purpose for their organization or cause which they feel really passionate about that serves the greater good. So in this regard I agree with Alberto below - it's about serving others rather than for your own purpose. When you have people, environment, or technology in mind that you want to impact it's much easier to proactively think about what would make sense in the future for the organization to achieve its long-term purpose. 
  2. When there's a strong sense of purpose high performing leaders rally and empower others to the cause and purpose. This is where the typical competencies of influencing, persuading, and convincing others are also another set of differentiating characteristics of high performing leaders. Positional power becomes irrelevant and in my opinion managers who use purely positional power without trying to convince or persuade others to follow them are not leaders who inspire action particularly among knowledge workers who are critical and discerning. There are times when position power is necessary to get things done quickly particularly in times of crises, but this is not a differentiating characteristic of high performing leaders. 
With these two key criteria above, yes I have come across or read about great leaders - many of whom are in non-profit or governmental related organizations. By and large around the world, one of the fundamental principles of economics of maximizing individual interests is deep seeted and so ingrained with how managers make decisions that finding social and transformational leaders in business is a rarity. That however, in the U.S. is changing I think particularly after a few meltdowns and highlights of how ethically challenged we have been. Unfortunately much of the developing nations are not there yet because I think it comes with maturity of the nations and markets. We begin with paucity of resources, trying to make ends meet, and developing financial strength, which is a necessity. Early entreperneurs in emerging countries with very little resources have to be opportunistic to survive. It takes a while before a longer-term socially responsible purpose for the people which we serve is developed and it takes much more maturity to do this. For this reason, I do not subscribe to born leaders or "natural" leaders. I think great leaders have many developmental experiences along the way to help them develop their sense of purpose and maturity for being a high performing leader.
mitch-mccrimmon's picture
Surprising that Gary, wanting to reinvent management, offers such a conventional account of leadership. His book, Leading the Revolution, was great, in my opinion, because he called on all employees to be activists. Unfortunately, he didn't take the next step that I would have taken - to show how acting as an activist is a way of showing leadership.

Conventional accounts focus on BEING a leader, either formally or informally as opposed to SHOWING leadership on a one-off basis. I define leadership as showing the way for others, either by example or by promoting a better way. This covers one-off instances of leading by example, a green leader promoting change and market leadership - one group leading another. This is an instance that doesn't involve a person being a leader. Rather, it is one group leading another.

Management, in my view, needs to be upgraded to take care of everything to do with getting work done through people. Managers can also foster innovation by using facilitative skills. They don't need to maintain the status quo. Leaders advocste change but managers can facilitate or decide on a change of direction. Leaders can only influence, hence all decisions must be made by managers. See my article: Leadership and Management Reinvented for more: http://www.lead2xl.com/leadership-and-management-reinvented

diganta-roychowhdury's picture
In a business organization context, I have seen many examples of people with positional power who have a great deal of natural leadership capabilities. They are actually the leaders we like to work for . But, I have seen very few natural leaders (without positional authority) accomplishing a substantial result within an organizational context. It is far more easier to see natural leaders emerge to advance a social cause in contexts other than business.
 
Would love to hear more about successful natural leaders without positional power in business organizations .
diganta-roychowhdury's picture
In a business organization context, I have seen many examples of people with positional power who have a great deal of natural leadership capabilities. They are actually the leaders we like to work for . But, I have seen very few natural leaders (without positional authority) accomplishing a substantial result within an organizational context. It is far more easier to see natural leaders emerge to advance a social cause in contexts other than business.
 
Would love to hear more about successful natural leaders without positional power in business organizations .
alberto-blanco's picture
A title is just a transitory role, it is just a tag, efimery as a twitter's hashtag. Natural leaders know this conciously or unconciously. That's why they prefer to be called by their names rather than by a bestowed tag which does not represent what they really are: people capable of serve instead of being served. Natural leaders give without expecting something in change. Sometimes they are called lunatics, saints or mavericks; Gandhi was a great example of a natural leader.

brian-driggs's picture
Not hard for me to imagine the hypothetical scenario, as it pretty much describes my day job. Still, we get things done. Frankly, I prefer to subscribe to Umair Haque's thoughts on "Constructivism." Better to be a builder than leader (than a manager).

Titles will never have as much meaning as brands, and brands will always be meaningless in the absence of action. So, what makes a natural leader? Taking action. No one will ever know you stand for something if they never see you actually standing for it.