Cultivating leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

Old-school philosophy suggests that leaders are simply born that way. While there are natural-born leaders, leadership skills are not necessarily innate and must be honed, says Anne Hach, executive director of training and development at Corporate College of Cleveland.

“Even ‘born leaders’ need to learn specific skills to become successful,” says Hach, adding that there’s a leader in all of us. “However, what can never be taught is the desire to uncover that leader. That really is the fundamental first step to becoming a leader.”

Smart Business spoke with Hach about the elements of good leadership and the specific skills a person must learn in order to become a truly successful business leader.

What are the core skills one needs to learn to become a great business leader?

There are several, such as effective communication, accountability, delegation, decision-making and coaching. The embodiment of each of these skills is what makes an effective leader. All of these skills can be learned. There are also habits that are counterproductive to leadership that can be unlearned. For example, some people have a tendency to finish a thought or sentence with a question. While this can make someone approachable if it is used in small doses, overuse can undermine a person as an effective leader.

What is the most important skill an effective leader must have?

They are all important, but one thing true about all good leaders is that they lead by example. Being genuine is critical to being a successful leader. People who imitate a style, or act in a way that is not authentic short-change their potential.

Is there anything about leadership that can’t be taught?

The desire to lead. As I once heard a speaker say, ‘If you want to be a leader, don’t wait your turn.’ That is a compelling statement that says, essentially, if you want to become a leader, you need to take charge of your own development. There are people who may say that they want to be a leader, and they may whine about not having the skills or complain that their company doesn’t provide opportunities for leadership. Well, leaders do not wait for someone to recognize them as leaders. True leaders look for opportunities to hone their skills and take charge of their own life. That ‘fire in the belly’ to become a leader really can’t be taught.

We all have had experience with formal leaders — and informal leaders. The informal leaders are those people who are on a committee, for example, and while they may not be chair, they lead the show, and others look to them for advice, wisdom and leadership. That is an example of a person who did not wait to be asked. That is the characteristic of a true leader.

Why is it important for employees to have leadership skills?

If you are an entrepreneur, it is obvious you can’t grow a company on just your own hard work. To exponentially grow a business, you have to involve the work of others — and to inspire these people you need to be a good leader. For those who work for a company, leadership skills are equally important since, if people want to get ahead in their careers, they also can’t just get ahead simply on their hard work. They may need to supervise other employees. To be successful at motivating others, they need to hone skills that allow the ‘inner leader’ to come out.

What role should businesses play in cultivating leaders?

Savvy businesses understand the value in training potential leaders and take an active role. These businesses spend a lot of time and energy in succession plans and identifying leadership potential. All this activity, by the way, becomes a reinforcing cycle that attracts leaders to the company.

Along with the talent shortage, is there also a leadership shortage?

Yes. Hiring managers report that, while candidates may have excellent technical skills, many candidates fall short on leadership skills. There are also many frustrated employees who long to move up the corporate ladder but don’t have the leadership skills necessary to make that leap. The leadership shortage doesn’t have to do with the potential leaders out there — it is the training that is necessary in the core leadership skills that’s lacking. However, many companies are beginning to wake up to this fact and are helping these employees get the skills they need to become great business leaders.

ANNE HACH is executive director of training and development at Corporate College in Cleveland. Reach her at (216) 987-2962 or anne.hach@tri-c.edu. Corporate College offers employers affordable, cutting-edge and custom-designed training programs to enhance future work force development, job growth and job retention in Northeast Ohio. Visit them at www.corporatecollege.com.