Building and Nurturing Natural Leadership

February 26, 2021

Natural Leadership

I have seen many leaders who excelled in their subject matter expertise but grossly underperformed in leading the team towards achieving and exceeding the team objectives. This is extremely expensive to the company if this happens in critical areas. It leads to an avoidable loss of talented people who will look elsewhere. At the same time, the company keeps the average performers in place who are not willing or cannot challenge the leader, reinforcing autocratic tendencies.

In technology companies and a knowledge-based economy, we need to be cautious not to drift away from leadership with a passion for people. We seem to acknowledge the importance of leadership, but it is sometimes translated into more ideas, such as inventors or successful entrepreneurs. Examples of impacting society with value-principled behavior come in second place. Those industry icons with a lasting positive impact write books about it. At the same time, other breakthrough ideas flopped through mismanagement of people or put under the carpet. I believe the latter is as common, or more common, than the first.

How I Define Natural Leadership

It is applying the golden principle that “you treat others the same way you want to be treated.”

Note that in this principle, no hierarchy is mentioned. It reinforces that we all lead within our circle of influence through our bonds with others. The zone of influence is getting more significant through the role we play in an organization. People with a natural talent for connecting with people have this principle in common and will exert a more significant impact as they drive the best out of people. It is never about themselves!

These in-depth traits create the ‘natural leader’ character who cares about others above all else. This is a person who salutes everybody in the corridor, and if possible, has a little chat or asks them to join for a cup of coffee. People have no idea how much self-confidence it creates to be greeted and asked questions by a company’s leading figure. This leader sends congratulatory or simple thank-you messages to co-workers who accomplished something ordinary or extraordinary.

The reason is not important; it is about how you make a person feel who gets the recognition they deserve for their hard work.

I remember a general manager of a big country who had installed his desk with his back to the incoming visitor. This way, he had limited disturbance from passing co-workers.

Again, if you are in the office, your first task is to generate a purpose bigger than your own goals and make people feel important. You may have the brightest ideas, but the implementation will fall short if your people don’t feel energized by you or don’t feel ownership of your master plan.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it eloquently:If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Finding Natural Leadership

After my MBA studies and entering the labor market for a couple of years, I looked at the world in a very analytical way: unraveling the market dynamics, predicting the future, planning human and capital resources, making go and no-go decisions. I call it the “1+1=2” world perspective. It was all extremely interesting, but I was never confronted with the impact of effective leadership on the company’s overall objectives. I had my ‘aha’ moment when I was sent to Portugal to lead the country organization for an American pharmaceutical company in my late twenties.

The local unit was on the brink of launching a new product in the treatment of hypertension. Nobody told me that the corporate headquarters were thinking of closing the operation, and my arrival was considered a last chance to turn things around. I felt an enormous responsibility on my young shoulders. The local situation was desperate as we were sitting on a vast inventory at our distributor. I listened to all the stakeholders. Then we embarked upon a critical but hopefully impactful project that required the whole workforce’s engagement and trust because of its high dollar investment. The local people were ecstatic, as most of them complained that previous management was always in favor of more analysis, leading to paralysis and no action. Needless to say, we worked very hard, and during weekends most of the people were in the office. As more physicians became aware of the benefits of the breakthrough product, the workforce saw every day with their own eyes the impact of their actions. It worked like an accelerator. The same country unit that almost closed down was now sitting on one of the best launches in Europe with exactly the same team.

I called this the “1+1=3” paradigm.

You will never play better tennis by attending a theoretical class on body movements. Only practice will upgrade your tennis skills. I would never have had this Portuguese opportunity if my bosses didn’t believe in me. Later in life, I practiced this principle with upcoming ‘golden principled’ talents and have always been surprised by how they surpassed my expectations through authentic and organic leadership. One of them is now the President of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. She always defended her team’s interest first, even if that meant taking a stance against the company’s position, or should I say, particularly if it collided with the company’s opinion.

Can we measure innate leadership qualities?

Some interesting metric tools drive evidence-based leadership ground rules. I want to use a metric tool because it allows us to speak the language of technically skilled jobholders who have little patience for soft skills. They tend to believe that exceptional leadership is equal to exceptional technical skills. Demonstrating a statistically positive correlation between emotional intelligence and business outcomes may help to open their mind.

I have a very positive experience with a proprietary personality assessment tool pioneered by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. They claim that people who have profound strengths will produce the best results, even if it is only one strength. Strengths are talents that are hardwired into you. However, Zenger and Folkman make the case that strengths can be developed. A leader who wants to become more effective needs first to improve their strength, not (contrary to conventional wisdom) their weakness.

This offers a variety of benefits. When people are motivated to work on their strengths, they will:

  • be more successful,
  • see immediate benefits in changed outcomes,
  • and incentivized and motivated to engage in further development.

The 360 feedback survey results of several high-fliers were presented to the Executive Team. High-fliers were defined as the executives with the highest growth potential as identified by the CEO’s direct reports. Zenger and Folkman identified a positive correlation between the degree of having strengths and leadership effectiveness. Several scientists and researchers in the room were very impressed by the results. Whether it changed their behavior and criteria to promote people is always a question mark. I have seen leaders who scored low on competencies (or had fatal flaws) that were given more responsibility, leading to a strong negative impact on company results. The outcome is painful because it is predictable and can be prevented. The leadership of ideas is not synonymous with effective execution and leadership of people.

Zenger and Folkman also found that people who inspire and motivate others have very high employee engagement scores. Direct reports deemed it to be the most important and desirable trait they wanted in their leader. Don’t forget this is based on quantitative research, not hearsay or intuition. It elevates our discussion about the golden principle: treat others like you want to be treated.

One of the most rewarding remarks a leader can receive is that you make people feel important and genuinely care about them.

It is not a coincidence that after lengthy psychometric analyses, the same human golden trait surfaces. As a newborn needs the mother’s love and care, and adolescents need their parents, so do jobholders need a solid tap on the shoulder. We are, after all, humans. Those who deny this reality will never be the caring leader who energizes or motivates higher performance. Leaders who feel they don’t need that human care because they have their intelligence as a guard may find they are driving a car without passengers.

Phillipe Von HollePhilippe Van Holle
After receiving his MBA from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Philippe spent his entire professional career in the pharmaceutical world. He started in sales positions in Squibb, and after a number of marketing jobs in Amgen’s European and Corporate Headquarters, he subsequently set up the European operations for Celgene as President Europe. He took a special interest in future leaders and turning the company into the greenhouse where people and ideas can flourish, and talent can speak openly and frankly about their way to make a difference in the company.

He was appointed Global Head Human Resources Celgene and retired in 2014.