Natural born leaders?

Robin Hoyle
Senior Consultant
Learnworks Ltd
Columnist
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I am a cricket fan and currently  watching the highs and (more frequently) lows of the England cricket team with great interest.  The recent weeks have seen a flurry of management activity with a former captain, Andrew Strauss, appointed to a new post of Director of Cricket and the former coach unceremoniously sacked – primarily via the medium of a discussion during a rain break on Sky TV. Now a new coach has been appointed – and an Australian at that – just before this summer’s Ashes series.

Inevitably these new arrangements have led to an examination of Alistair Cook, the England captain.  For those who don’t follow the game, Cook is England’s highest ever run scorer and has the most test centuries of any England player in history.  From a view of his personal performance statistics, one would think there could be no question asked of his own place in the team.  Except, this is Cricket and the aforementioned rain breaks allow for much fevered speculation amongst ex-players turned pundits and journalists alike.

Cook is seen as a conservative captain – a man who works to a pre-arranged game plan and only extremely reluctantly changes tack during a game.  He is perceived to be captaining the team by the numbers.  Contrast that with his current opponent, Brendon McCullum of New Zealand.  Despite the pretty limited resources at his disposal, McCullum has created a team with enormous self-belief and a swashbuckling approach to the game which is in stark relief to the perceived under-achievement of the team led by the more reserved Cook. For the Kiwis, runs are not so much accumulated as racked up in a swirl of flailing willow, fist pumps and disbelieving smiles.  The fields McCullum sets are inventive – players are placed in positions which the obscure lexicon of field positions finds difficult to describe – England batsmen are dismissed, leaving the field with head shaking puzzlement.

In cricket commentary and journalism, McCullum is described as a natural born leader – Cook as a manufactured one.  For those of us who have undertaken our fair share of work on leadership development, this debate will come as no surprise. If you’ve ever designed, delivered or even attended a management programme, the chances are someone, somewhere has talked about natural leadership skills as though there are those for whom this is a gift from God. No amount of training and development activities can ever hope to enable mere mortals, unblessed with the leadership gene, from becoming a leader who can compete with the ‘naturals’.

Of course, this is bunkum. McCullum has played test Cricket for 10 years. Of his 94 test matches, 24 have been as captain. His Dad was a first class cricketer and his older brother also represented New Zealand. McCullum has had the most rigorous training for the role he now holds.  He’s also learned in the job.  His first outing as captain was disastrous – hammered 3-0 by a rampant and highly skilled South Africa. But he has learned and improved. McCullum is as much a created captain as Cook.

Cook similarly has had a long apprenticeship, playing in 81 test matches before being elevated to team leader. He is working with more experienced players who play a more traditional style of cricket. He is the leader of the team that the team has come to expect in much the same way as McCullum fulfils the expectations of New Zealand cricket in his role.

The assertion that leaders are born not made is one which those of us in L&D circles should have put to bed years ago. Yet still it persists.  It is emphasised by those whose shaky confidence and low self-esteem demands that they take inflated levels of credit for their leadership achievements.  It is reinforced further by the drift towards having a class of bosses – apparently born to lead but really just provided with greater opportunities to learn the craft of leading.

The disdain for leadership development rears its head when we speak about training programmes and formal development activities.  And yet we all know that learning happens both within and outside the classroom.  Can you teach leadership?  No more than you can teach someone how to use a software programme.  The role of formal training is to provide a vocabulary, open up possibilities and help people understand and frame the experiences which preceded the programme and which will undoubtedly follow.  Whether leading a small team in an office, shop or surgery or leading a team out in front of a packed house at Lords, the combination of instruction and experience provides us with leaders who are the products of culture and learning as much, if not more than, personality.  

Robin Hoyle is a writer, trainer and consultant. He is the author of Complete training: from recruitment to retirement. His new book: Informal Learning in Organizations; how to create a continuous learning culture is published by Kogan Page in September. Robin will be speaking at Learning Live on September 10th and Chairing the World of Learning Conference at the NEC on 29th and 30th September, 2015.

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