Recently, someone shared with me some comments that they had heard at the start of my leadership journey. According to these comments, severe concerns were raised about my suitability to become a senior leader in my organisation. In summary, I was too young, too inexperienced; and knew nothing about the journey on which I was about to embark.
There may have been elements of truth about these comments. I indeed lacked relevant work experience in senior leadership positions. Despite this, my senior leadership journey is one of growth and success. This makes me wonder, is leadership about aptitude or attitude?
The fallacy of aptitude
Aptitude can be equated to skills, experience and raw ability. However, leadership encompasses a broad range of competencies, so it can be very challenging to equate strong aptitude in some competencies into an actual aptitude to lead. For example, possessing experience of leading a team in a corporate environment with clearly defined hierarchies; does not necessarily translate into actual leadership ability in a different environment. To be even more specific, I am a big believer in the power of data analysis and strongly believes that contemporary leaders should be numerate and analytical. However, the best analyst in the world may make for a very poor leader. She or he could be incapable of anticipating the impacts of its decisions, could forget human factors altogether or could even miss the wood from the trees.
Gauging someone’s leadership potential on aptitude alone is a fallacy in my opinion. A dangerous fallacy that could even lead entire organisations to become victims of the Peter principle. The Peter principle states that in hierarchical organisations, people tend to rise to their maximum level of incompetence. This happens because promotion and going up the hierarchy is often based on past or current performance in existing roles. However, as any investor will tell you …
Past performance is not an indicator of future performance.
I sadly observed the Peter principle in action many times in my leadership journey. There is nothing worse than seeing good and capable people struggle because they’re now doing a role that is too big for them. As I said before, leadership is not easy. Yet organisations often end up with poor leaders at the top, who have neither the aptitude required by their roles nor good leadership attitudes.
What do I mean by attitude?
Attitude can be equally challenging to define. In my opinion, it represents the set of behaviours, and beliefs which drives us on a day-to-day basis. Being curious about what happens around us. Proactively finding information as opposed to expecting, possessing a questioning attitude, challenging authority and established principles. Being kind to others and recognising what happens well. Being open and willing to take on uncomfortable feedback in all circumstances. All of this belongs to attitude.
One could argue that the right attitudes can be developed and nurtured in the same way as we can become better strategic thinkers. I don’t disagree and I have changed my attitudes in certain areas over the past few years. However, some of our behaviours are set during our formative years, and so maybe far more difficult to change in later life. One could additionally argue that attitudes could be defined by short-term factors such as how we feel on a given day. While this does have an impact on how leaders behave. Feeling unwell or tired won’t necessarily change our inner beliefs. We often bring out our true selves forward during stressful situations.
Why attitude matters more than aptitude
At its most basic leadership is about bringing a group of people forward on a journey to reach a goal and fulfil a vision. This is a vast endeavour that can be accomplished in many different ways. Moreover, obstacles and challenges will arise on this journey. Leading an organisation can be very unpredictable. I for example, never expected to lead thousands of people in the middle of a global pandemic. Rising to unexpected challenges may involve being able to flick a switch and adopt a different approach at short notice. A leader close-minded and very much set in his or her ways could struggle to do this. On the opposite end of the spectrum, someone indecisive or lacking in self-confidence could end up panicking and avoiding making any decisions. Finally, pre-existing frames of reference no longer apply in unusual situations. How do you react when there are simply no longer any rules or procedures to follow?
Leadership is very multifaceted and multidisciplinary. Going back to the example I used earlier of data analysis. A capable leader will see the woods from the trees, translate data into knowledge, and knowledge into communicable actions. All of this requires a diversified set of skills. There are times when delegation is not possible. We must not forget that decision making based on available information is a part of leadership. Here, curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and a questioning attitude can make a massive difference. Why? Because they broaden horizons and provide leaders with a better feeling and appreciation of what is possible and what could be possible.
I mentioned the Peter principle earlier and the associated dangers of leaders being unsuited for their roles; despite being successful in previous leadership positions. To me, this demonstrates the importance that leaders must place on a growth mindset and in having a sense of humility. Looking back on my leadership journey, what helped me the most is that I am hungry for feedback and while I did receive uncomfortable feedback in the past. What amazes me now with the benefit of hindsight, is how much of this feedback I took on board and sometimes without even realising it.
Nonetheless, this attitide is far from universal, even in an organisation that focuses on personal growth. I have lost count of the number of leaders I met who refuse structured mentoring, think they know best and even refuse feedback when it is offered to them. How is this attitude conducive to developing an aptitude to lead, I don’t know …