How do leaders develop? Since research has completely discredited the idea that leaders are born (or become leaders by some innate characteristic or right) and that class room input is not that useful since most of the content delivered in classrooms rarely makes it into practice then how is it that leaders emerge from among us?
I observe that in the best case we recognize leaders through the convergence of three factors that ebb and flow like a tide sometimes raising in synergistic force that propels a person to a unique influence in the lives of others and that sometimes ebbs causing influence to recede and a time of exposure and reflection emerge when new insights are germinated and given a chance to alter the landscape of the personal experience and insight. As I see it character, acquired skill and circumstance (what some call opportunity) converge and dissipate constantly in life providing the situation in which influence, recognition and results align to render the recognition that one is a leader.
Convergence is the best case because I have to admit that plenty of historical examples exist of leaders who emerge simply because those around them abdicated their personal responsibility to these three factors – as Lipman-Blumen observes, toxic leaders are made by their followers in just the same way good leaders are recognized and empowered by their followers.
Of the three factors I see character as the most significant. It is certainly the one thing over which the potential leader has the greatest control. How one chooses to invest their time, energies, emotion and mental capabilities determines whether a potential leader will (1) recognize the opportunity to lead; (2) have the insight, knowledge and tenacity needed to engage the task; and (3) possess the capability of winning the right to gain other’s attention and trust. By character I mean those virtues that are recognized as beneficial for the social good. Lists of virtues are as abundant as the writers who think about them.
For brevity I prefer to use the four cardinal virtues of Greek thinking because they serve so well as expansive categories:
• temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē) – self-discipline, strength of will or strength of mind
• prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis) – discretion, good sense, forethought or acumen
• fortitude: ανδρεία (andreia) – courage, staying power, grit, resilience
• justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē) – evenhandedness, impartiality
A person of character demonstrates the temperance needed to be prepared, the prudence needed to read the situation and others with relative accuracy, the fortitude needed to step up to meet challenge or change with courage and the justice needed to provide a common hope which is the foundation for action in the vision of a mutually beneficial and preferred future. Reliance on virtues suggests that leadership possesses a strong moral center from which ethical decisions are made and choices are evaluated.
Acquired skill is a function of learning. Learning is sometimes described as experience and it makes sense to assume that someone who has engaged a task, situation, life or people for a longer period of time should also have acquired unique insights that provide wisdom for navigating challenging and unknown situations in life.
However not everyone with time served in life possesses experience or learning. It is quite possible to flow through life without any of the critical reflection, synthesis or curiosity needed to catalog insights or information into retrievable and applicable knowledge or wisdom. Without critical reflection that tests one’s assumptions or observations insights either degenerate to hasty generalizations or evaporate for lack of effort to retain their significance. Those recognized as having made a difference in the lives of others and their organizations seem to be people who make a habit of the rigor of learning from all their experiences – good or ill. They possess a curiosity that seeks to understand so they investigate and they test their insights in real life. They become more proficient, more insightful, and more capable by continual reflection and practice.
Circumstance is a word that holds a greater sense of recurring potential than does the word opportunity for me. Perhaps that is because when people talk about opportunity relative to leadership they seem to talk more about privilege than recognition of chance occasion to risk stepping out in practice of what one has learned. For example when one ascribes their lack of accomplishment relative to another as a problem stemming from their never being granted an opportunity it is often followed by an embittered commentary on how the other was granted every chance to succeed. I have no doubt that privilege (opportunity stemming from affinity to someone in power) occurs regularly. However I find that leaders can see far more opportunities arise because the situation or circumstance in front of them provides the arena they need to put their acquired skills, abilities and insights to work among those who want help in making sense of what they face. The need to put skill, ability and insight to work does seem to open new doors of opportunity. It appears that Jesus’ statement that those who are faithful in little are indeed given much.
How is it that emerging leaders recognize these opportunities? Often they don’t at least not in the way that is later described when those around them write reflectively about what occurred. I find that leaders step up to what we call opportunity in hindsight because their sense of justice, temperance, prudence or fortitude was summoned to action because they saw a chance to make a difference by applying what they had learned through life. This is what I call the convergence of character, skill and circumstance.
This pattern of convergence seems to hold true in my experience which is of course still being tested in life. The pattern causes me to reflect on my own habits, perspectives and attitudes. It causes me to ask myself to what degree I pursue contribution to others as well as success (my own sense of accomplishment). It summons me to ask the degree to which I exercise my own virtues, learning and vision. It also allows me to determine what opportunities I will invest myself in and which ones I will turn down. Virtue leads me to seek a return on my time and energy not just for my own inurnment but also for the benefit of those I serve as a leader.