What are the characteristics of an emerging leader?

Luke MortonBy L
uke Morton, current student in the University of Sydney Business School MBA Program.

I have studied leadership, and been amongst leaders for the last eleven years. In that time I have learned at least one thing. People may be able to recognise a leader, but few can define leadership.

When asked, most make Aristotelian, virtue-based arguments in support of a certain list of characteristics demonstrated by effective leaders. Such an argument is but a reflection of personal ethos, influenced by cultural perspective. Historically, the Spartans and Germans have respected laconic, gruff leaders. Athenians and Americans, outspoken and charismatic leaders. The Japanese and English, cultured and educated leaders. No perspective is wrong insofar as each culture can fit that style to themselves and their circumstances.

Put culture aside.

On a mechanical level, leadership is about whether you can influence your environment rather than the other way around. Functionally, a leader transposes their personality and perspective onto those around them. History then judges them on their means and ends; virtue and success.

So then what defines an emerging leader? The question presupposes that leaders can be made as well as born. My experience tells me this is correct.

People grow. They are their experiences. But experience is not important suis generis. Two students can sit through the same lessons, and graduate with radically different levels of expertise. Similarly in business, a person can be a forty year-old master, or an eighty year-old novice. Somewhere hidden in the logic of the universe are multiplying factors.

A strong case could be made that those factors are motivation, reflection, and courage.

In this day and age it is possible to spend a life of minimal experience, wrapped in a ball of cotton wool. We have the means to make life extremely comfortable. But as necessity is the mother of invention, plenty is the mother of stagnation. Thus emerging leaders must be motivated enough to reject comfort and embrace risk. Some will be pushed by ideology, others pulled by curiosity. All that matters is they are exposed to a hard lesson once in a while.

Once taught, such lessons must be learnt. The Allegory of the Cave illustrates that one can be fooled by appearances if they do not reflect on their experience of the world. It takes a reflective philosopher to make the most of experience. A beginner’s mindset is a good place to start.

Reflection can be hindered, however, if one lacks the courage of self-awareness. Nicholas Taleb wrote that his definition of a loser ‘is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on.’

A developed leader has certain characteristics that allow them to turn their will into action. They may be born with them or they may not. They may have just one, or they may be blessed with many. It is pointless to debate which leadership traits are good to have because all leadership traits are good. Further, leadership can be circumstantial. Sometimes a community needs one trait more than another.

On the other hand, the traits of an emerging leader are individual, centered on personal growth. An emerging leader has the capacity to develop the qualities of a leader because they have the capacity to learn. They have the capacity to learn because they are not afraid of difficult lessons. And they are exposed to difficult lessons because they expose themselves to risk—only doers make mistakes. These three qualities could be re-arranged because they do not come in any particular order. They are mutually supporting.

Autocratic, democratic, charismatic. It does not matter. Leadership characteristics are related but not relevant to the question at hand. What matters to an emerging leader is that they risk failure to find success, take responsibility for their actions, and learn from their experiences. Leadership – an emergent property – will grow from these three things.

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