#85 Engineers Are Natural Leaders

by Steven Cerri on March 5, 2009

“Engineers Are Natural Leaders–Say What?”

Hello everyone!

I know this week’s blog may cause some controversy but I’ve got to put this out there because by being silent, I believe it’s only making the situation worse.

You see, recently I had dinner with a friend of mine. During the conversation he made a comment that nearly required that someone administer the Heimlich maneuver to me.

I was chewing on some delicious French bread when he said; “You know, a lot of people I work with think that engineers are natural leaders”. That’s when I nearly choked on my bread.

Fortunately I recovered quickly and asked, “You said what?”

He repeated his statement and this time, without food in my mouth, I laughed out loud.

Then I responded, “You’ve got to be kidding me, right?” He responded, “No, I’m not.”

“Engineers Are Natural Leaders…”

I’ll begin this discussion at the beginning. And as a beginning I will state that no one is a “natural leader”. No one is a “born leader”.

I listen, often with great frustration, to people who make proclamations about leadership. They might say that “so-and-so is just a born leader”. Or how someone “is a natural leader”. Or how “everyone can be a leader”.

Well, which is it? Are leaders born? Are they natural? Can everyone be a leader?

The bottom line is that most people who talk about leadership don’t understand the term or the concept and are merely repeating some old phrase that others have spoken. They often make statements like:

“Leaders inspire and managers perspire”… or…

“Leaders know what to do and managers know how to do it.”

Actually, these are generally useless phrases.

I wouldn’t mind in the least if someone wanted to tell me who was a born leader or a natural leader if they spent time up front defining leadership. But most don’t. They assume that everyone has the same definition and understanding of leadership.

And all I have to do is discuss leadership and leaders with these people for a while and I can quickly determine that we don’t all have the same definition of leadership.

My definition of leadership

Therefore, I’ll begin here with my definition of leadership… and it’s not a simple definition.

Leadership, in my book, is a multi-faceted term that has a complex definition. The definition of leadership has multiple parts (six to be exact) and if any part is missing it’s not leadership.

However, for this Ezine and this discussion, there are only two components of the definition that are necessary.

The first component is that leadership is about the relationship between the leader and the context. This may well be the most powerful component of leadership. The leader and the environment must be in a mutually supportive relationship. If the environment doesn’t “need” or “want” the leader, the leaders seems “out of touch with reality”. If the leader is exactly what the environment “needs”, the leaders seems to magically appear, as if out of thin air. They seem to be “born” for the job.

In reality, they’ve always had these traits and now the environment has shifted and their traits are perfectly matched to the occasion. (There are those situations where the leader can “morph” to match what the situation needs as well, and this kind of leader has become more common in the last 40 years or so.)

Therefore, what looks like “magic”, what looks like a leader born to the job of leadership, is actually an individual living their life, waiting in the wings, off stage, until the stage is set for them to step forth fully formed or nearly so.

As long as the environment is aligned with what the leader can provide, then the leader will flourish. However, when the environment shifts, the leader will often vanish or be significantly diminished in stature.

There are many examples of this “match-up”, and then a lack of it, throughout history. They include many military leaders, such as Napoleon, General George Patten, and many political leaders such as Boris Yeltsin, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush just after 9/11. We must wait to see how the leader-environment match-up plays out for President Barack Obama of the United States as well as President Nicolas Sarkosy of France. Both were elected in environments that were making a major transition.

This leader-environmental match-up is is exactly why successful “serial entrepreneurship” is so difficult to achieve.

How many times can a match-up occur between an entrepreneur and the environment? Apparently not very often. It is the rare entrepreneur, indeed, who can start-up several successful companies.

Only the leader who can morph to match the environment can be a leader in a variety of situations. General, and later president, Dwight Eisenhower is an example of a leader who was able to cross contextual boundaries. And Elon Musk is an example of a successful serial entrepreneur.

All one has to do is look out in the world and it becomes clear that there aren’t any born leaders or natural leaders. The phrase, “He (or she) is the leader of their time” is a truly accurate statement. Leadership is about the leader and their “time” being in alignment.

If you want to read more about this topic, you can get it in my Ezine at: Steven’s February 23, 2009 Ezine

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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