I have long believed, and know for a fact, that most of what we call leadership behavior can be learned.
But some of what constitutes great leaders (whether on the world stage or in your organization) simply can’t be learned – or taught. I call that the X Factor.
All of the effective leaders I’ve ever known, worked for, coached, or simply observed had at least one amazing characteristic that they brought to the table – and they didn’t learn it. They learned to leverage it.
Take Jim, for example. Jim’s a great leader in his market-dominating organization. He’s visionary, he’s a compelling communicator, and he’s legendary in his knowledge of what his organization produces. But he also has this knack, I’ll call it, of being able to make anyone think that they are the most important person in the world to him at a given moment.
I don’t think that’s teachable. Improvable, perhaps, but he brought that to his leadership practice from deep within his psyche.
Then there’s Tom. A former highway patrol officer, he moved into a management role in a large manufacturing organization and soon excelled at his ability to lead his department to high levels of effectiveness. To some, he was an SOB to work for, but most would admit privately at once you’ve worked for Tom, you took your own performance to another level. For Tom, the X Factor was his decisiveness. He was rash, impulsive, and quick to make decisions. Training and mentoring and coaching helped him improve the quality of his decisions – but none of that made him more decisive.
Sally was held in awe by others for her talent to make people feel fully supported and heard, which in turn made them want to follow her. Sally’s development path no doubt included learning strategies and techniques that convey the experience of empathy – but she brought the desire and habit of being empathetic to her role as a leader. She didn’t learn to be empathetic in a classroom, or from a book, or from her mentor. She was naturally empathetic – only moreso than most people.
Everyone can learn to be a better leader.
I believe that leaders will be more effective if they study leadership to learn what effective leaders do, and then practice applying those skills until they master them. But just as important, leaders should reflect on their personal X Factor and seek to leverage that as much as they can.
What is your X Factor? Ask yourself:
- What comes naturally to me?
- Where have I always excelled (not just in a leadership context, but in general)?
- What are the two or three words that people use most often to describe me?
When Connie thought about these questions, she was surprised at first to hear herself answering:
- “My sense of humor.”
- “Putting people at ease through humor.”
- “Connie is funny, relaxed, confident.”
Connie’s X Factor is humor. It’s what can take her leadership practice to a very high level. She can learn (and in fact has learned) many typical how-to’s of leadership: setting goals, challenging people to do their best, holding people accountable, or even running good meetings. But it’s her ability to find the humor in any situation which will put her over the top.
If you were to study Connie’s leadership, you might conclude that you should learn to be funny to be a better leader. Wrong. The real lesson is to learn what your own X Factor is, acknowledge it, run with it, and make it a hallmark of your leadership “style.”