By Mostafa Azzam

A friend and high-powered CEO recently remarked to me about how surprised he was that, despite the immense literature and research to date on the topic, the practice of leadership remained, in his view, mediocre at best! I have heard this remark over and over again throughout my 29-year career in talent management and leadership development. He went on to say that: “leadership was an innate ability which you either had, or you hadn’t.” In his opinion, you don’t learn leadership – you’re either born with it or you’re not!

Prior to the Covid pandemic, and according to TrainingIndustry.com, leadership development was an annual $50+ billion global industry. So, if my friend’s opinions are true, then good luck to all those billions – what a waste!

Trending topics in leadership development, post-pandemic, include:

  • Leading and Supporting Employee Wellbeing
  • Leading Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
  • Shaping Culture and Building Trust
  • Leading Remote and Hybrid teams
  • Digital Leadership
  • Leading Across Generations
  • Agile Leadership
  • People-Centric Leadership
  • Reducing Unconscious Worplace Bias
  • Data-Driven Analytical Leadership
  • Ethical Leadership

But, despite the promise that seems to lurk behind these trendy topics, research suggests that leadership programs have not historically lived up to their hype and do in fact fail to achieve the expected results. It has even been claimed through post assessment and evaluation that, in many instances, leadership development has had no tangible impact on behaviour change after considerable investments in training. So, why aren’t leadership development programs working as well as they should?

Over time, many researchers, writers and leadership practitioners have attempted to answer the above question, and many have come up with a number of critical failure points which many believe are valid answers to the question. In this article, I have tried to approach the problem from a different and less orthodox perspective.

To this author, leadership is, first and foremost, an innate ability which we are all blessed with, at birth. In Christianity, God created mankind in His own image … ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’ … (Genesis, 1:27). In Islam, God breathed into man of His spirit … ونَفَخَتُْ فيِهِ مِنْ روُحِي … (Quran, 15:29). How then could greatness, aka leadership, not be a default and inherent human characteristic? Does this not imply that greatness or, at least, the ‘potential to be great’ is an innate quality that exists within each and every human? At the very least, this implies that we occupy a higher order because mankind alone is imprinted with this godlike essence. And, if leadership isn’t an integral part of that godlike essence, then … what is? It follows naturally then, that in our quest to reach our true potentials and exercise our dominion over God’s creations, we must endeavour to seek out this innate ability, aka leadership, to fully realize and express the potential that God breathed into each and every one of us.

“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.” –Warren Bennis

But, why then don’t we all display this inherent leadership capability? Why aren’t we all great leaders, why aren’t we all billionaires, why aren’t we all scratch golfers, why can’t we all grow up to be president one day??

It is the author’s view that, over time, and particularly during the childhood phase of our lives, this innate quality is either caressed to the surface or gets buried so deep within us that we barely know it exists anymore. For the mass majority, it is the latter, and that is mainly due to internal and external abrasive influences such as family, friends, foes, school, work, society, ethics, conformity, culture …etc. As a result, most of us lose touch with our divine inner selves very early on in our lives, we lose sight of our true callings and succumb and conform to the roles laid out for us by society; roles that are typically meaningless, pointless, non-fulfilling, purposeless and, in no way, intended to cultivate our innate leadership qualities. As a result, most people go through life blissfully ignorant of how great they were meant to be and what tremendous and amazing potential they may still carry within them. …Imagine if they could all be trained to rediscover their greatness!!

In comes the magic of true and effective leadership development, and in comes that most precocious of human beings; the ‘gifted’ and experienced practitioner. To most, this ‘practioner’ is known as a ‘teacher.’ To others, he goes by ‘coach,’ ‘mentor,’ ‘guide,’ ‘facilitator,’ ‘instructor’ or ‘trainer.’ Still, to others, he is ‘imam,’ ‘father,’ ‘priest,’ or ‘rabi.’ Yet, one thing is for sure, he is a truly unique breed of human with the singular ability to take his flock on journeys of probing, self-discovery and realignment. It is his nature, his gift, his calling. This gifted practitioner is uniquely positioned to help us probe, unlock and reclaim our innate leadership qualities; simultaneously releasing us from our blissful ignorance. Yet, let’s be clear on one thing, leadership nirvana is very rarely attained within the contexts of formal, structured, classroom-based leadership development programs. More often than not, it blossoms in much more informal and unconventional settings. A gifted and experienced leadership mentor/practitioner is indeed the number one ingredient for a successful leadership initiative, but there is nonetheless a framework he must operate within:

  1. A one-size-fits-all program will not cut it.
  2. Ineffective and inexperienced ‘consultants’ that often overfill their programs with concepts, theories, frameworks and models that overwhelm and under-apply will not cut it.
  3. Theoretical classroom application, on its own, will not cut it.
  4. Non-transformational initiatives that are not prepared to battle the internal culture, the status quo and the workings of an organization will not cut it.
  5. Inadequate follow-up, measurement and evaluation. Lame metrics, short-sighted and irrelevant analytics and a poor ROI strategy will definitely not cut it!

“Some people will just go with the flow of things and sway in life, while others will fight against the currents and go upstream to reach their destiny.” –Anthony Liccione

On my path to enlightenment, I find myself being drawn towards a potential answer to the age-old conundrum: Are leaders born or made? From this writer’s perspective; leaders are both born and made. That is because we are all ‘born’ with that innate talent, that innate quality, we refer to as leadership. But for most of us, and by the time we’re barely out of childhood, this leadership quality has become so deeply hidden within us that it has to be rediscovered, dug out and resuscitated. Depending on the depths to which it has been submerged, many of us need to be ‘retrained, reskilled and reprogrammed’ to realize our true leadership potential, to rediscover our God-given greatness, to reconnect with our true inner selves, and to reemerge as the true leaders we were meant to be.
But, make no mistake, to undergo that arduous journey requires an abundance of truly inspirational support, work and developmental effort … and that is where the ‘gift’ makes all the difference!!

In conclusion, we aren’t all great leaders, we aren’t all billionaires and we aren’t all scratch golfers because most of us haven’t yet tapped into, let alone discovered, that vast well of “greatness” we are all born with. We haven’t yet had the opportunity to be guided down self-discovery boulevard in an effort to rediscover our true potential and realign our values and beliefs. You can’t attain your leadership potential without going down that journey of self-discovery and realignment. You just have to find the right shepherd for the job!

So, maybe there still is hope for the billions spent annually on leadership development programs by corporations, world-wide!

As for ‘growing up to be president one day’ … Who Knows?