It’s often said that great leaders are born.
While there may be some for whom assuming leadership positions seems to come naturally, becoming an effective leader involves too much for it to simply “happen.” There are too many skills, habits, and necessary knowledge required to be an effective leader. Like other skills, disciplines, or occupations, it is a craft that must be continually sharpened with much thought, effort, and practice.
Throughout my basketball career, I was often appointed or voted team captain. Being team captain implies that your coaches and/or teammates think you might have some leadership skills. There is a level of trust or belief in team captains that they will assume a leading role in the development of the team.
Why was I chosen? Most likely because I was the best player as far as skill level and physical ability. Sometimes, such decisions, particularly on sports teams, defer to that trait. The larger question was whether it was deserved. Regardless, it was something thrust upon me even though I knew very little about how to be an effective leader.
All leaders have their own style. Some are very vocal. Others are quiet and prefer to lead by example. I fell into the latter category, believing that actions spoke louder than words. To that end, I made sure to work harder than anyone else on the team, improving my skills, spending the most time in the gym and weight room, both in season and out. If my teammates saw that effort, surely, they’d be inspired to do the same.
Because leadership styles are so individualistic, the challenge is how to leverage your unique talents and personality to maximize your impact and effectiveness as a leader. It starts with being yourself. If you are not authentic, genuine, and true to your core beliefs, values, and personality, people will see through you and therefore be less inclined to follow your lead.
While leading by example is the foundational principle of effective leadership, I’ve come to understand that leadership requires much more than that. It requires effective communication skills and a sensitized awareness of the various personalities of teammates as well as the team’s culture. It requires more than simply worrying about your individual attitude and efforts. Effective leaders take the time to engage with their teammates to determine how they are doing mentally, physically, and emotionally both on and off the court.
In fact, a case can be made that thinking that simply working hard on your own game or skills will inspire others to follow is, to a degree, selfish. It is selfish because it requires only that you work on improving yourself. That’s the easy part of leadership. The more difficult part requires that you “invest” in others to find out what motivates them and makes them tick. The most fundamental responsibility of a leader is to make his or her teammates, staff members or volunteers better. Leadership is about giving of yourself to inspire others to follow and do the same. That requires a lot of time, thought, effort, emotion, humility, empathy, and, ultimately, love. Being an effective leader is difficult work, requiring sacrifice in that you are taking your focus away from yourself and investing in others. Effective leaders must be selfless because, at the end of the day, people don’t care how much you know or do until they know how much you care.
I sometimes wonder what I would have done differently as a team captain all those years ago. Given the benefit of time and experience, I’d like to think that I would have been a much more effective leader. And as a result, our team would have won a few more games. Or, at a minimum, performed more effectively and efficiently as a group and done so with passion and commitment. Regardless, the point is that becoming an effective leader is a lifelong journey driven by an unquenchable thirst to continue to learn and improve. As leaders, we are all works in progress.
So, are leaders born? In some cases, perhaps. But for most, becoming an effective leader is an ongoing process. It doesn’t simply fall into your lap. You must work at it. In short, becoming an effective leader, like any skill or talent, is a craft that must be contemplated, tended to, and honed over time.