Leadership series (Part 1): Are leadership skills transferable?

My previous blog post has included a poll inviting my global readers to cast a vote on the question “Are leadership skills transferable?” As at the time of penning this blog, the results are as follows:

  • Yes – 25%
  • No – 50%
  • Perhaps – 25%

Thanks much for your kind contributions and insights!

I am opening up this poll for an indefinite period of time to encourage increased participation and hence, the accuracy of this poll.

While the polling continues, I would like to start off this series of blog posts on leadership based on the abovementioned question of transferable leadership skills. These blog posts do not strive to provide a conclusive discussion or pursue a definite answer to this question but rather, offers several perspectives (of which further discussions can be continued) and insights (which can further the developments of leadership studies).

Before we can touch on the transferability of leadership qualities, we need to understand several critical elements that are inextricably linked with leadership:

  • Character: There are various strong leaders who lead through what is known by some as “force of personality”. This means that the very biological and psychological make-up of these leaders are what defines them as leaders. Those who believe that leaders are mostly made up of such individuals will probably be the one who will cast “No” in the “Are leadership skills transferable?” poll – because all of us are unique and no single person can replace another entirely. It is important to understand that in some scenarios where most leadership qualities are mostly defined by the personality of the leader, there often arises succession issues in corporate organisations when CEOs of such qualities are retiring and are looking for their successors. If much of these CEOs’ leadership qualities arise from their personalities, then much of their leadership attributes would have been lost when they step down (although one’s personality can influence another over time, it cannot be transferred in its entirety), and much hope of success rest on the new set of qualities that their successors bring to the C-suite table upon ascension.  Therefore, while leadership through “force of personality” is powerful when such a leader is at the helm, a strong sense of uncertainty and unpredictability will emerge when such a succession takes place – as no one can be certain that an entirely different individual can do an equally great job, if not better.
  • Approach: Some leaders shine and excel due to their astute ability and discerning talent in identifying the right approach to use in specific situations. This aspect of leadership is not new in certain leadership Asian literature and among the examples given in these articles, much has been cited that authoritative leadership (where control is relegated to a single leading individual) is necessary in the infancy phases of any entrepreneurial endeavours, while participative leadership (where power is given to employees and at times, other stakeholders) i s essential during the stable phases and tribal leadership (where teams within the organisation are encouraged to self-function to fulfill certain objectives) is desired in the expanding phases. While it may be the case that there is always a switch in a leader at the change of every phase, it is possible that certain leaders have a knack for changing leadership styles to suit the particular context and circumstances that he or she is placed in. This ability may be innate or nurtured and till today, this is debatable. That being said, we can observe that such leaders are skilled and renowned for their versatility and adaptiveness  rather than their personality.  Their strengths lie in the deployment of strategies and tactics, rather than their personalities. Such abilities may be easier to transfer than personality-based attributes but it still comes down to the question of how much can be transferred.
  • Succession issues: In recent years, much has been said in leadership literature that one crucial skill of great leaders is to ensure a smooth transition when it comes to succession issues. This is challenging for some great leaders as they might be great in leading and forming great teams but identifying a suitable candidate to replace themselves is not easy. It involves one crucial skill that often falls outside of  leadership discussion – the ability to identify the talents of others. This is a complicated skills as it involves keen perception on various levels. Firstly, it requires one to understand all if not most skill sets of one’s subordinates. Secondly, it involves an acute understanding of the corporate culture of one’s organisation and what sort of leadership is required at that point in time, along with the foresight of a required change in leadership style in the future (This requires the leader to be a visionary as well). And thirdly, the leader must be able to confidently align the skill sets of the candidates with what the organisation needs in terms of expertise. Any one of these three factors is enough to intimidate a leader, not to mention all three simultaneously. But if a leader is able to accomplish all three tasks, the leader will ensure the success of his organisation in the long term, long after he or she has left.  Succession issues often prove to be the toughest for leaders who lead with “force of personality” (please see the “character” section above).  This is also another attribute of a leader that proves to be challenging to be transferred to another since an ability to identify a potential successor requires an excellent talent for spotting talents, something that might be innate to a certain degree.
  • Beliefs and Values: Great leaders are often driven by positive values (a principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable) and beliefs ( mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something) that propel them to do great work in their organisations. However, it is important to note that usually, by the time we become adults, much of our beliefs and values would have been formed and hard to change. While positive habits can be taught and transferred to another, beliefs and values are hard to transfer. For example, a manager may work because he or she feels that diligence is the quality that should be worked on and applied in real life as it gives him or her a great sense of satisfaction. However, some of her subordinates may regard monetary remuneration as the motivating factor to work. While the former is an intrinsic factor (and a more longer-lasting of the two), the latter is an extrinsic factor – of which constant monetary increment is almost impossible. Therefore, leaders are often unable to inculcate the same values that they live by in their subordinates or even their successors. This is another factor that often hinders and impedes the succession process. Therefore, motivating their employees proves to be very challenging for most leaders. There are many books out there that states that telling motivating stories, leading by example, influencing others and developing mutual trust and respect work great for leaders. This is true – to a certain extent. However, when it comes to emulating the outstanding qualities that make these leaders great, it is not always possible – at least not for every single employee.

The 4 factors mentioned above are merely the few primary challenges facing the transference of leaders in contemporary times but note that this list is by no means exhaustive.

To the leaders, the main focus when it comes to nurturing, mentoring, coaching and guiding their successors should be on identifying their unique talents and capabilities – while unleashing their potentials. Trying to transmit leadership attributes to their successors and hoping for the best is challenging at best, futile at worst.

Leaders should treat individuals as potential leaders and groom the most suitable candidates to take over the rein after they have stepped down. This is the better approach as their successors will feel less pressured to conform and avoid the dire situation of running themselves into the ground in order to be someone that they are not.

This is merely my personal opinion and the effectiveness of leadership transfer is still open for debate. I hope that this article will contribute to the existing leadership literature in some ways.

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