What It Takes to Learn to Be a Leader

New Book: Is there such a thing as a born leader? Probably, but for most people, leadership can be a learned craft, says Robert Steven Kaplan. In his new book, What You Really Need to Lead, Kaplan provides practical advice to executives facing different challenges to illustrate what makes a good leader and how to become one. Tip No. 1: Think and act like an owner.
  • Author Interview

Leadership is Not Genetic

Interview by Roberta Holland
After a decade of teaching leadership courses at Harvard Business School, Robert Steven Kaplan has fielded the question of whether leadership can be taught more often than he can count.

Kaplan addresses the question again in his new book, What You Really Need to Lead. His answer: an emphatic yes. Leadership is a skill, not some genetic trait inherited by a lucky few, Kaplan says. In the book he provides practical suggestions, exercises, and anecdotes of executives facing different challenges to illustrate what makes a good leader and how to become one.

The first step, Kaplan says, is ditching the idea that you’re either born a leader or not.

“I feel strongly that it doesn’t work that way,” says Kaplan, who left HBS this month to take over as president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “This would be like you’re either fat or you’re thin. You’re either in shape or you’re not in shape. Well, you’d never say that. You’ve got to work at it.”

"I hate to break it to you, I think your people probably think right now you’re a weakling"

Like getting in shape, becoming a stronger leader requires doing things that might make you uncomfortable. That includes taking inventory of your strengths and weaknesses, seeking feedback from subordinates, and asking questions. Executives seeking Kaplan’s advice find themselves on the receiving end of his rapid-fire questioning, ranging from what’s distinct about their company to who holds what particular job and why. If they don’t know the answers, they need to ask, he says.

“They’ll say OK, I didn’t know I was supposed to do that, or they’ll say, gee, if I do that, I’m going to look like a weakling,” Kaplan recounts. “I say, I hate to break it to you, I think your people probably think right now you’re a weakling. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, I’m not impressed myself.”

An Owner Mind-set

While the executives coming to him for counsel face unique challenges, ultimately all the issues connect to the subject of leadership, Kaplan says.

Part of the difficulty is that people often can’t articulate what leadership is. Academics don’t agree on a common definition either. Rather than try to move people toward a specific definition, Kaplan lays out what he calls a “framing” for the leadership journey.

At the heart is taking on an ownership mind-set—thinking and acting like an owner regardless of your job title and maintaining an unwavering focus on adding value to others, whether it’s to customers or the community. That ownership mentality also includes being willing to take responsibility for good and bad outcomes, acting on your beliefs, and creating an environment in which employees adopt an ownership mind-set themselves. Leaders need to communicate their priorities and then get their employees in alignment.

“What is the vision, how do you add value that’s distinctive, and what are your top three or four priorities,” Kaplan explains. “That is the prism through which you judge every action you take—who you hire, how you sit, where you spend money, what markets. Everything flows from that.”

Who I Am

The other key, which ties in with Kaplan’s two previous books, is understanding who you are. That includes knowing your strengths and weaknesses, passions, and boundaries.

Kaplan recounts the story of a founder and CEO of a multimillion-dollar tech company who was concerned about his firm’s market position eroding and frustrated by a lack of input from senior executives. When Kaplan interviewed the CEO’s business partner, he learned the CEO had a habit of cutting people off and criticizing suggestions to the point that people no longer bothered. These situations, Kaplan says, happen all the time.

“Everybody has blind spots. People who work with you know what your blind spots are. They just can’t believe you don’t see it,” Kaplan says.

Bosses need to be aware of the power asymmetry between themselves and subordinates—it causes people to hold back from mentioning things they think their superior doesn’t want to hear. As a result, bosses need to ask questions to elicit feedback—and listen.

Tweak Towards Success

The path to becoming a strong leader is not a one-shot deal, Kaplan adds. Would-be leaders need to continually analyze situations, themselves, and their organizations and tweak their approach as needed to fit their new reality.

“Businesses fail because they can’t make transitions. The paper every day is about businesses that were once effective that are no longer,” Kaplan says. “That isn’t a story about apparatus. That’s a story about people. And yet there are other businesses that have adapted incredibly well, it’s amazing what they’ve done—and that’s about people. They went out there and they tried to figure out what’s going on, and then they tried to adapt to it.”

Kaplan, who before joining HBS in 2005 was vice chairman of the Goldman Sachs Group, acknowledges it’s possible for executives or companies to have success without this approach, but he doesn’t believe they would reach their full potential without it.

In his book, Kaplan stresses that leadership is not limited to the boardroom or the upper echelons of an organization. Anyone, regardless of position, can be a leader, but people often think they’ll wait for a promotion or another opportunity to try it. Not a wise move.

“If you want to be a leader, you need to act like it today. If you don’t want to or you’re not game to, then stop dreaming about it because you can forget it,” Kaplan says. “It would be the same way if [I said] I’d like to be a world-class athlete, but I don’t want to train. Well, you’d laugh. That’s stupid. It’s exactly the same.”

  • Book Excerpt

The Power of Thinking and Acting Like an Owner

from: What You Really Need to Lead: The Power of Thinking and Acting Like an Owner
by Robert Steven Kaplan

Leadership is about what you do. It is not a position you hold or a state of being. Your leadership potential is certainly shaped by who you are as a person and your life experience, but whether this potential is realized depends on what actions you take.

Sometimes your actions will lead to positive outcomes, and sometimes they will lead to negative outcomes. While external factors can influence outcomes—making money, setting profit records, winning elections, securing a piece of business, and so on—these outcomes typically are the result of a sustained period of high-quality actions. The point is that results, by themselves, don’t define good leadership. Instead, good results typically occur as a result of good leadership.

Years of effective leadership usually precede sustainably good results. By the same token, good current results can often mask poor leadership, although this may not become apparent for several years, sometimes too late to prevent real damage.

An Ownership Mind-Set

If effective leadership typically precedes sustainably good results, what are the key elements that tend to be critical to effective leadership? If there is a wide range of potentially effective leadership styles, do these styles share certain key features? In my experience, the answer is yes.

Effective leadership begins with having the right mindset; in particular, it begins with having an ownership mind-set. This means a willingness to put oneself in the shoes of a decision maker and think through all of the considerations that the decision maker must factor into his or her thinking and actions.

Having an ownership mind-set is essential to developing into an effective leader. By the same token, the absence of an ownership mind-set often explains why certain people with great promise ultimately fail to reach their leadership potential. An ownership mind-set involves three essential elements, which I will put in the form of questions: 

• Can you figure out what you believe, as if you were an owner?

• Can you act on those beliefs?

• Do you act in a way that adds value to someone else: a customer, a client, a colleague, or a community? Do you take responsibility for the positive and negative impact of your actions on others?

These elements are not a function of your formal position in an organization. They are not a function of title, power, or wealth, although these factors can certainly be helpful in enabling you to act like an owner. These elements are about what you do. They are about taking ownership of your convictions, actions, and impact on others. In my experience, great organizations are made up of executives who focus specifically on these elements and work to empower their employees to think and act in this way.

Do You Try to Figure Out What You Believe as if You Were in the Shoes of a Decision Maker?

The world is full of people with opinions. Television, radio, and other media are brimming over with commentators making suggestions and offering seemingly authoritative advice to government officials and corporate executives about what they ought to do. At dinners and cocktail parties—and around the water cooler at work—we talk about what others should do or should have done, or the flaws of our bosses. There’s usually very little risk in this banter, and often no one even remembers what was actually said. It can be fun and sometimes interesting. On occasion, giving our opinions may make us feel better about ourselves, because we’re weighing in on important issues. We may even think that by asserting our views, we are acting like leaders.

In our jobs, we may give our opinion on an issue from a functional or departmental point of view--in other words, a limited perspective. Or we may give an opinion without fully thinking about the issues and weighing the interests of various constituencies that our boss has to consider in order to make an important decision. We may do this because we don’t have access to additional information or, alternatively, because we believe that broadening our perspective simply isn’t part of our job description.

This kind of opinion giving may be quite appropriate and adequate in any number of situations, but it doesn’t constitute leadership. Leadership requires much more. It starts with taking on a broader perspective in figuring out what you truly believe should be done--that is, as if you were an owner.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from What You Really Need to Lead: The Power of Thinking and Acting Like an Owner. Copyright 2015 Robert Steven Kaplan. All rights reserved.

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