Bionic Man

The Bionic Leader


Leaders are made, not born. Sure, some people are born with greater aptitude in certain areas inherent to leadership, but not all of these people grow up to become leaders. Likewise, many people who are not born with inherent skills identified with leadership work hard to develop these skills and grow into great leaders. That’s my opinion. Admittedly, it’s not a universal truth—it’s a hotly debated topic. In a study published in 2012 by the folks at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), they found 52.4% of C-level executives (barely over half) believe that leaders are made, not born; 19.1% believe that leaders are born, not made; and the remaining 28.5% believe they are equally born and made.

Nonetheless, I am in pretty good company with my opinion.

Stewart Friedman, founding director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project and author of the book Leading the Life You Want writes, “One of the myths that I am trying to bust…is that you are born with this capacity to be great. Not true. It is a matter of, yes, skill. There is a lot of luck. But there is also persistence, discipline, passion, and courage to pursue that which is most important to you and to the people around you”.

It’s also the opinion of Colin Powell, retired Army General, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former U.S. Secretary of State—a man who knows a thing or two about leadership. When speaking to students at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, he said, “Effective leaders are made, not born. They learn from trial and error, and from experience.”

And then there’s Vince Lombardi. He wasn’t “just a football coach” (although he is considered by many to be one of the best, most successful coaches in NFL history). He is widely regarded as being a great leader, who developed great men and built great teams. He said, “Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”

At the risk of showing my age, I’ll admit that one of my favorite television shows growing up as a young boy in the 1970’s was The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors. The premise of the show was that after being severely injured in an accident, astronaut Steve Austin was “rebuilt” in an operation that cost six million dollars. Following the surgery, he used his new “bionic” parts (his right arm, both legs, and left eye) to fight crime and perform other good deeds. The show featured a most memorable opening sequence, including stirring theme music, in which the narrator declared: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.”

If you’ve never seen it, you can watch it here:

I’ve often wondered what it would be like if we could build our leaders in this way. What “bionic parts” would we give them to make them “better…stronger…faster”? After more than 22 years in various leadership roles within the government and corporate sectors, and having worked for and with hundreds of different leaders (some great, some not so great), I have identified six attributes that I would implant in the ideal leader.

Bionic Leader 2

  1. Great leaders must know how to hire great people. Great leaders aren’t larger-than-life superheroes who do it all themselves. They excel at building great teams and driving superior results. As Jim Collins explained in his best-selling book Good to Great, there is empirical evidence that proves that good-to-great leaders focused first on “who”, rather than “what”.
  2. Great leaders must be able to give clear direction. A great team of talented people will get you where you want to go—but only after you’ve told them where that is! Stephen R. Covey identified this as one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (“start with the end in mind”).
  3. Great leaders must know how to coach and train their people. Leaders love working with people, while managers love working with things. This is why great leaders are also great teachers. They are inspired by lifting others up and making others better. It is no wonder why so many people who we consider to be great leaders come from the military and sports coaching ranks—two professions that have institutionalized a culture of training.
  4. Great leaders must be adept at clearing obstacles and running interference for their people. They empower others to act on the leader’s vision. General George S. Patton once said, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” Instead of micromanaging their performance, leaders add value to their teams by tackling issues head-on that distract their people and inhibit their execution.
  5. Great leaders must hold their people accountable. Management guru W. Edwards Deming famously said, “You can expect what you inspect.” And one of the tenets of the Six Sigma process used by so many companies around the world is that in order to improve something you must be able to measure it. Great leaders establish metrics that measure the right behaviors and outcomes, and then monitor them regularly.
  6. Great leaders must be generous in giving praise for their team’s wins and willing to accept blame for their team’s failures. Leaders are judged by the performance of their team, not by their own personal accomplishments. Great leaders take pride in the accomplishments of their team members and aren’t threatened by their success. Leaders should never throw their people under the bus when things go wrong. Instead, great leaders ask themselves, “What could I have done differently or better to ensure the success of my team?”

It would be great if this article put an end to the debate of whether leaders are made or born. I’m not holding my breath. But perhaps we can all agree on what great leaders are and what they do—whether born that way or made that way. If you were blessed by being born with these six qualities, congratulations! But, if not, and you are (or aspire to be) a leader, then use this article as a checklist to “rebuild” yourself into a bionic leader!

What do you think? What other “bionic parts” would you add implant in the ideal leader? Leave a comment below! Adding to the conversation and helping others is great Karma.

Header image by Surian Soosay on Flickr, CC BY 2.0
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