Monday, May 25, 2015

Do You Have Leadership Genes?

I’ve just got home, exhausted, after being responsible for a 3-day youth camp for 71 excited 14 to 16 year olds.  But it was a wonderful team of 17, mostly young (mid-twenties), team leaders that did the work and carried the camp to great success, despite some rather trying circumstances. In fact, one of the highlights of the experience was the way in which everyone adapted to suddenly changed conditions, without even a hint of panic. Although, no mobile phones, electronic devices and the like, was probably more of a challenge for our teenagers than not being able to have a shower or see in the dark. And their thumbs got a chance to have a rest for 3-days.

As you might expect the camp involved lots of team-based activities. What was wonderful to watch was how leaders popped up like jack-in-the-box and carried their team. Sometimes there was more than one of these leaders in a team and it was interesting to watch them compete or co-operate, depending on their wont. In some teams leaders didn’t emerge straight away and the adult team leaders had their work cut out for them trying to stimulate leadership. Sometimes a reluctant leader would emerge but it wasn’t spontaneous and they would need help. The climate of these two groups, those with spontaneous leaders and those without, was different, in terms of enthusiasm and output.

What was interesting, and important, about this leadership talent that I saw was that it was very raw in terms of skill. It was driven by personality characteristics rather than anything else and some were more skillful than others, presumably having learned from direct and vicarious experience.

The research on human personality is pointing towards the fact that it is based on our genes, initially, and then shaped by experience. We appear to have genes for certain traits and the extent to which they are turned on or off is determined by our environment and our experience. So, for example, a person might have a genetic predisposition for being very compassionate but it will be modified by what happens to the person: probably (but not exclusively) in the first few years of life. So, for example, if the person is raised in a violent, abusive family that trait may well not manifest itself at all. This can result in what I call intrapsychic conflict  and the source of psychological distress but that’s another blog altogether.

The research on leadership is much the same. The recent research on the human brain supports the notion that some of us have better developed areas for judgment, emotional responsiveness, relationship ability, adaptation and so on, than others

Organisations that run leadership programs take great delight in touting that about 30% of leadership ability is genetic while the other 70% is learned. Of course this makes sense: how else would they make a living?

Of course people can learn certain leadership skills. As a psychologist I would often teach people with Asperger’s syndrome (think Sheldon in Big Bang Theory) how to fake empathy, attentive listening and other relationship skills. And they would be able to use the skills, much to the delight of their families.

The point is that the 30%, or whatever it is (I’m sure this number was taken out of a Chinese fortune cookie) is critical. It’s the bit you need on which to build skills. One of the characteristics of personality is that under stress, we tend to revert to type. That is, we forget what we have learnt as our brain becomes more focused on survival.

Does it matter? Well, I think it does. One of the big mistakes organisations make is that they are more inclined to hire or promote people due to their technical skills than they are their leadership skills. In fact, the latter can get very short shrift during the hiring process, which (sadly) may only consist of an interview and some reference checks with the candidate’s best friends and mother. In most leadership roles the technical skills are less important. It is the leadership skills, that are personality based, that are the most critical-as many organisations have found or not found, to their detriment.

It’s the quality of the leadership that accounts for organizational culture, which in turn is responsible for employee engagement. Hopefully, you don’t need me to tell you about how important engagement is in the quantity and quality of widgets produced by your organization.

Select your leaders more carefully is my suggestion and on personality rather than technical skill or even reputation. Get the best fit for your organization, no matter how big or small. And do this by having the person spend  some time with the organization, getting to know them and watching how they respond. The interview is very unreliable and easy to manipulate. Trust me, I’ve successfully done it many times.


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