Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, wrote a book recently about his experiences running a large corporation. He says he is often asked whether leadership can be learned, or whether it comes as “part of the package” (innate). His answer is: “a little of both”. He agrees that IQ and “energy level” are probably innate, but that self-confidence is learned “at your mother’s knee”.
But in reality, it’s all innate. Successful leaders often make this mistake. They feel their confidence is learned from experience since it increases over time, as they achieve more success. When a successful leader is young, he often feels trepidation in front of more senior people, or when confronted with difficult situations, yet later he becomes more confident. So it must be learned, right?
The confusion here is whether you can develop into a confident leader, not whether you're able to inspire confidence from the day you were born. (Did Napoleon command anyone the day he was born?) The ability to develop into a leader over time is what’s innate.
If you are a born leader, you will seek out experiences that help you develop. You will feel energized when things go well in their development, as when your parents support you. Born leaders often remember the energizing feeling when they were at their mother’s knee, assuming that their mother was the one who instilled it, when their mother simply reinforced something that was already there.
If you are born with raw leadership ability, your early experiences will serve to help you understand it, exercise it, come to terms with it, and “fine tune” it. But your early experiences don’t make you a leader - you are born that way. Recently, however, in the Oct 16, 2006 issue of Business Week magazine, Welch seems to contradict himself when he writes that "charisma ... seems to be inborn. It can't really be trained." How could charisma be innate, when self-confidence is learned, Jack?
According to Jack Welch, leaders must “exude energy” and “be able to inspire confidence” and “be optimistic” and “be comfortable in their own skin”. Yet some people feel stress (instead of energy) when given positions of leadership and they fall apart. Some people have a hard time making eye contact, or smiling when others look at them, and this gets worse as they get older. Some people have no motivation unless rallied by a leader.
Leaders fulfill the needs of their employees, who want to be appreciated, acknowledged, and given approval and dignity. Employees need to have their self-confidence built-up by the leader. Yet those traits in employees often limit their ability to be a leader themselves, since the higher you climb in an organization, the fewer people are around to stroke your ego. In order to become a leader, you need to be self-confident and “comfortable in your own skin”.
Another recent book by a former GE executive, in an honest moment, confesses that sometimes these traits are “just not in [your] DNA”. Sifting through thousands of employees to find the ones with the right traits is really a crude process of finding those with leadership genes.