The title references the 1994 film Natural Born Killers, directed by Oliver Stone and written by Quentin Tarantino. Of course, I’m not suggesting there is a parallel between a killer and a leader, but as the title suggests, if one person can be born a killer, so too can one be born a leader.
This takes us to an age-old question – are leaders born or made?
Some believe that with the proper effort and mentorship, anyone can become a great leader, which provides a chance for everyone to climb the ranks. Others, however, believe that leaders are born needing little to no improvement, leaving those without these qualities with little hope of ever developing these traits.
My intention is not to arrive at a definite answer to this dilemma, but to highlight the qualities and characteristics I have observed throughout my career that reinforce the concept of what it means to be a leader. Whether you believe leaders are born or made, there is much we can learn by applying these traits to our own habits.
One of the first things I learned early in my career was that leaders should care for their subordinates. In the mid-1980s, I was a maintenance intern for a personal care products manufacturer, and one day, I found myself struggling with some personal issues. While I didn’t talk about it, my maintenance manager noticed something was wrong.
Instead of moving on with his day, he invited me to lunch, taking the time to talk to me and understand my situation. This provided a powerful lesson; it taught me that as a leader, you must understand that someone’s personal life can influence their performance at work. No matter if they’re an intern or a senior member, you must show empathy for your subordinates and care for the people working under your direction.
A key hallmark of all leaders is credibility, or the level of trust you have earned with your peers. This directly influences the morale of all workers who interact with you. Part of building your credibility is understanding and adhering to the values set forth by your company. Going against these values can prove detrimental.
For example, a mining company I previously worked for had the corporate leadership value “respect everyone.” One day, a corporate director visited our site to talk about the status of the company. At the end of the meeting, several team members approached him to ask questions about the mine’s operation.
When he saw them, he put his hand up, directing them not to get any closer, before telling them, “Don’t think you get to tell me anything.” The team was left confused and frustrated, and as a result, their morale diminished significantly.
No one appreciates it when a boss or leader places the blame for their own mistakes onto their subordinates. This “Successes are mine; mistakes are yours” attitude has no personal accountability, which is a critical attribute of any good leader.
A mine I previously worked for had planned a shutdown for its ore processing plant. Because of the considerable number of tasks and resources involved, including the use of highly specialized contractors, precise and detailed planning and scheduling were required.
During this process, one of the managers made the executive call to start the shutdown a week early. The result was total chaos. Most of the contractors couldn’t make it to the site, and the spare materials needed to complete multiple projects still hadn’t arrived. As a result, most of the tasks couldn’t be completed, and the shutdown advancement percentage was less than 25%.
In the post-shutdown review meeting, all staff were required to meet in the conference room, where we were harshly reprimanded and made to take the blame. By making us the responsible party, the manager “washed his hands” of any accountability, and famously said, “If I’m going down, I’m not going alone.”
This outcome led to resentment among team members, which resulted in a breakdown of communication, loss of morale, and a decrease in individual effort.
Non-work-related activities, such as holiday celebrations and friendly competitions, are a great way to encourage camaraderie, enhance communication between team members, and motivate the people you manage.
Through these team-building activities, team members can interact in a more relaxed setting, which presents the opportunity to form relationships and connections with peers they may not normally interact with. This fosters a sense of belonging and togetherness, which solidifies the feeling of being a team and leads to greater job satisfaction.
As a leader, one of your critical tasks is communicating information to your subordinates. To do this effectively, you must understand how to best phrase your message so the information will be understood and absorbed. Otherwise, you risk creating confusion and misunderstanding, which, at best, leads to frustration and, at worst, dangerous consequences.
By taking the time to make sure your message will be understood, not only are you effectively communicating the information that your team members need to perform their roles, but you also demonstrate that you are considerate of them and foster a team mentality.
A leader shouldn’t be perfect, and I would say we should doubt a leader that never fails. A leader can make mistakes, but they should be conscious of them and use them as tools to help them learn and evolve into a better leader. That is the hallmark of any great leader.
Leadership is a journey, and we are all capable of learning from both positive and negative experiences by identifying the traits that lead to the ultimate outcome and using those to guide how we grow as leaders.