Strategy & Leadership

What if leadership can be learned?

November 4, 2014

Leadership is partly innate, but can be learned to a considerable extent, says professor Erik van de Loo. “You can learn how to lead change; which actions are successful and which are not. A leader must be familiar with proven methods that are most likely to be successful.”

People do not follow a leader for no reason. They have to have confidence in him, says Van de Loo. “It is evident from scientific literature that a leader who is trusted has the following characteristics: he is open and modest. He gives others space. He will show his vulnerable side and is modest, but not falsely modest. A person with these characteristics will meet with support.”

Van de Loo distinguishes between leadership and management. “Managers help an organization in realizing processes and having these run smoothly. Whenever this concerns a change in the organization, management begins to lean towards leadership. Under those circumstances, inspiration is key and it is important that everyone is on the same page.”

Of course, a good leader is also capable of managing others. Achieving the goals agreed upon is also part of change management, and this requires managerial skills. But a good leader doesn't have to do everything himself. “A good manager understands where leadership begins and, the other way round, a leader knows when it is about good management. But he doesn't have to have these skills himself; he can also opt to call upon someone who does have the necessary skills.” Richard Branson is an example of this. “Branson is known for inspiration, he has surrounded himself with good people who carry out tasks that he is not or less capable of doing, such as the finances or staff matters.”

What is the most important feature of a good leader?

A good leader knows himself well. That is very important. And he must exhibit enough openness and intelligence to be able to interpret the world around him. A good leader understands which role he has or can have. Not only in the company, but also the role of the company in the world in which the company exists. And so a leader must be aware of what he is good at and what he is not so good at. He has to be aware of his limitations. There is nothing wrong with not being able to do everything, just as long as he knows that. That is the right time to call upon people who are capable of doing these things.

Is having good leaders a necessity?

The theory of evolution shows that every group feels a need for direction, safety and an internal structuring. That was the case in prehistoric times, and that is still the case in organizations. A fourth need that came to light in recent studies, concerns a group's need for meaning. Whatever you do, you must do it well; young people in particular find this important.

Having good feelers is a very important part of being a good leader. Can that be learned?

Some people are better equipped than others when it comes to having the characteristics that are needed to be a good leader. Self-confidence, for example, is important. Intelligence is also an important part of being a good leader. Not excessively intelligent, by the way, as you may move too fast for the group with analyses and decisions. Vitality is another innate characteristic, but it too can be acquired through effort. By leading a healthy life, for example. And so characteristics are partly innate, but they can also be acquired through learning. You can learn how to lead change; which actions are successful and which are not. A leader can engross himself in the options that have proven to be most likely to be successful.

Such as?

It has been proven that a change that is implemented as a D-Day is most likely to fail. A leader will do better to implement a change step-by-step. 
As a leader, it is good to be aware of these evidence-based examples. You can learn this by reading a lot and by sparring with other managers. It is not a checklist that you can run through, like is sooner the case in management. Leadership is about inspiration, about getting people on board. It is being aware of others; but that too can be learned.

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