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By: James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

Nearly every time we give a speech or conduct a workshop, someone asks, “Are leaders born or made?” Whenever we’re asked this question, our answer, always offered with a smile, is this: “We’ve never met a leader who wasn’t born. We’ve also never met an accountant, artist, athlete, engineer, lawyer, physician, writer, or zoologist who wasn’t born. We’re all born. That’s a given. It’s what you do with what you have before you die that makes the difference.”

Let’s get something straight. Leadership is not preordained. It’s not a gene, and it’s not a trait. There is no hard evidence to support the assertion that leadership is imprinted in the DNA of only some individuals and that everyone else missed out and is doomed to be clueless.

Leadership can be learned. It’s an observable pattern of practices and behaviors and a definable set of skills and abilities. And any 
skill can be learned, strengthened, honed, and enhanced, given 
the motivation and desire, along with practice, feedback, and 
coaching. When we track the progress of people who participate 
in leadership development programs, for example, the research 
demonstrates that they improve over time. They learn to be better leaders.

But here’s the rub. Although leadership can be learned, not everyone wants to learn it, and not all those who learn about leadership master it. Why? Because becoming the very best requires having a strong desire to excel, a strong belief that new skills and abilities can be learned, and a willing devotion to deliberate practice and continuous learning. No matter how good you are, you have to always want to be better. The truth is that the best leaders are the best learners.

One midcareer executive told us about an address he still remembers by General Colin Powell, given at the Naval Academy in 1992: “He told the assembled brigade of midshipmen that one of the tenets of a good leader is to never stop learning. He stressed that we must use every experience, good or bad, to strengthen our leadership identity.” He went on to say that “among the leadership lessons I learned, the impact of making time for practicing good leadership strikes me as the most significant.” You can’t learn to be a good leader without putting in the time and practice.

Florida State University professor and noted authority on expertise K. Anders Ericsson made this same point when he said, “Until most individuals recognize that sustained training and effort is a prerequisite for reaching expert levels of performance, they will continue to misattribute lesser achievement to the lack of natural gifts, and will thus fail to reach their own potential.” Anders and his colleagues have found, over the 30 years of their research, that raw talent is not all there is to becoming a top performer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in sports, music, medicine, computer programming, mathematics, or other fields; talent is not the key that unlocks excellence.

Staggeringly high IQs don’t characterize the great performers, either. Sometimes world-class performers are really brilliant, but in many instances they possess just average intelligence. Similarly, years of experience don’t necessarily make someone a high performer, let alone the greatest performer. And as startling as it might sound, sometimes more years of experience can mean poorer performance compared to those newly graduated in a specialty.

What truly differentiates the expert performers from the good performers is hours of deliberate practice. You’ve got to work at becoming the best, and it sure doesn’t happen over a weekend. If you want a rough metric of what it takes to achieve the highest level of expertise, the estimate is about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over a period of ten years. That’s about 2.7 hours a day, every day, for 10 years!

In other words, you have to have a passion for learning in order to become the best leader you can be.You have to be open to new experiences and open to honestly examining how you and others perform, especially under conditions of uncertainty.You have to be willing to learn quickly from your failures as well as your successes, and find ways to try out new behaviors without hesitation. You won’t always be right or do things perfectly, but you will get the chance to grow.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (Fifth Edition). Copyright 2012, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Published by Wiley & Company.


About the Author(s)

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner are coauthors of The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations. Kouzes is the Dean's Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. Barry Posner is Accolti Professor of Leadership and former Dean of the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University.