The Leadership Factor-X: Can it be taught?

Posted by | July 20, 2017 | For your career, How to be awesome at your job, Inspiration

X factor leadership

Guest post: Alanna Irving

“What is it that makes you a leader? Why is it you who often takes the lead?”

This question was posed to us, a group of relatively young people at different points in our professional journeys, by our facilitator, Suze Wilson, at the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Rethinking Leadership hui.

Suze, an expert in leadership, had just finished talking about how hard that word is to define. It can mean anything and nothing, is often mistakenly confused with other concepts like “authority” or “management”, and is prone to become a “receptacle for fantasy”.

She shared definitions from the research, like “leadership is about making something happen that otherwise wouldn’t”, and “leadership is when someone succeeds in framing and defining the reality of others”. But there was no one answer.

Around the room, eyebrows furrowed. How could we answer, when the concept itself is so slippery? And yet, each of us felt we knew it deeply, on some level, because it had defined us. Ideas began to tumble out.

“I’m happy to let others pick up the ball and run with it, but so often no one does. So I do.”

“Once I see a way things could be better or a solution to a problem, I can’t leave it alone.”

“I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, even when it would be easier to walk away.”

“I’m just impatient. Usually things get done faster when I start coordinating everyone. I’ve been like this since I was a child.”

That last one was me.

Questions about the nature of leadership have been bothering me for years. I’ve wrestled with various aspects in my writing, with my colleagues, and even in counselling. But I never felt like I got the bottom of it.

Any time human groups work together, the dynamic emerges: someone points the way, frames the question, or suggests the plan. Sometimes the role trades off or shifts, and it looks different in different contexts and cultures, but it’s always a factor.

Often, it’s the same people who do it repeatedly, while others do not. It’s not always the person with the top job title, or the one who’s “supposed” to be in charge. It’s not just the smartest person, or the one with the best ideas, or the most charisma. There’s something else going on.

A lot of times leadership isn’t fun. It can take a lot out of you. It doesn’t always align with status or power, which many people don’t actually desire anyway. Leadership can trigger pushback or attract blame. It’s often easier not to be the goose at the tip of the flying V.

So why do it? Is it even a choice? Can it be learned, or taught? Well, there was an expert right there in front of the room, so this was my chance to find out. I asked: “So what is that leadership x-factor that seems so hard to define?”

To my surprise, she had an answer right away, and it was refreshingly clear and concrete. Turns out that when you spend years engaging deeply with research on leadership, and practice it over a long career, you do get closer to the bottom of it.

The Leadership X-Factor, Defined

About 30% is due to traits you’re born with:

  • Intelligence
  • Conscientiousness (sense of responsibility)
  • Being verbally outgoing
  • Capacity to learn (especially new behaviours)
  • Being the oldest child (practice caring for others and taking charge)
  • Self-awareness and capacity for reflection

Another portion is developed through life experience:

  • Diversity (of experiences)
  • Adversity (overcoming, being stretched, resilience)
  • Variety (working with different people and contexts)
  • Intensity (high stakes situations)

And the rest comes down to:

  • Luck: whether you are presented with opportunities
  • Choices: whether you say yes to opportunities
  • Environment: whether your strengths are valued by those around you

Many of us around the room that day saw ourselves in this list, and felt understood. I was quite glad to learn that while some leadership qualities are inborn, many can be learned and developed.

If you’re looking to grow as a leader, consider these questions:

  • Of the inborn leadership traits, which do you feel you have? How might you better nurture and appreciate them?
  • How might you experience more diversity, adversity, variety, and intensity in your life, to stretch your abilities?
  • Are you putting yourself in situations where leadership opportunities are likely, and saying yes when they arise? Are you in the right environment for your strengths?

About Alanna:

Alanna is currently the Executive Officer of the YWCA Aotearoa and team member at the Open Collective. She previously co-founded, and led, Loomio and Enspiral.

Alanna speaks and writes on topics including: bossless leadership, collaborative technology, cooperative systems, values-based, open-source companies and communities, and governance for a radically optimistic future.  Read more of Alanna’s writing here:

Alanna was born in San Francisco, worked in Asia and Europe before settling in New Zealand.

She loves cats, can stand on her head, is fluent in Japanese, and her favourite food is kale.


One Response to “The Leadership Factor-X: Can it be taught?”

  1. Comment made by rcnz on Jul 21st 2017 at 7:20 am:

    Nice and clear, thanks. I’ve recently googled the difference between management and leadership and been startled to hear so much negativity about being a manager. The descriptors make it sound like being a manager is about being a controlling dictatorial oppressor. The guru of Google appears to be taking Dilbert as its source of information on this point. Also, I think it good to note that leadership is not everyones cup of tea, and thats a good thing. It doesn’t make a team member of lesser value if they just do what they do well, and don’t seek to take the lead on things. Not at all.

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