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Saturday, December 05, 2009

What History Tells Us About Effective Leadership

What do we actually know about effective leadership? One hundred years of research on the topic has led to some clear answers.

First, are leaders born or made? The answer is both, but more made than born. Leadership is a complex and sophisticated social role. Although certain qualities do predispose some people to attain leadership positions and be better at leading, effective leaders actually hone their skills through experience, conscious self-development, education, and training.

Second, does leadership training work? Relatively recent analyses of over 100 years of leadership training and development efforts suggests that most programsme do indeed lead to some positive change. Is the change dramatic? Sometimes. Certain crucible, or trigger, events can lead to substantial improvement in leadership ability. For the most part, however, leadership development is a long-term and incremental process.

Third, are there certain elements that all (or most) great leaders share?

We are quite sure that the theory of transformational leadership represents the very best elements of leadership. Effective leaders tend to be inspirational, visionary, and serve as positive role models for their followers. But the very best leaders also care sincerely about their followers, their well-being and their personal development. Great leaders also empower followers and encourage them to be creative and to take initiative.

Fourth, is leadership situation specific? In other words, if you are a successful leader in one area, such as at work, will you also be a successful leader in the community, or in a different company? Although this question has not been thoroughly researched, it is likely that the same transformational qualities and skills will transfer to other settings. The limitation, of course, is that knowledge of the particular setting, and understanding of its “culture” is required. So, a period of adjustment and learning is needed to allow the leader to use transformational abilities in the new environment.

Finally, how early in life does leadership begin to develop? This is a fascinating question, and one that current research is exploring. There has been little longitudinal research on the early “roots” of leadership, but initial results suggest that the foundation of leadership begins at a very early age. Encouragement from parents and teachers likely plays a very important part, as well as early exposure to a variety of social situations, and novel experiences.

What are the implications for personal leadership development? Leadership is complex, but it can be developed. We know the building blocks of leadership success, and it is clear that devoting time and energy to your personal development pays off.

Success and Failure Begin and End in What the Mind Believes is Possible

The story of Roger Bannister is an inspirational one.

For many years it was widely believed to be impossible for a human to run a mile (1609 meters) in under four minutes. In fact, for many years, it was believed that the four minute mile was a physical barrier that no man could break without causing significant damage to the runner's health. The achievement of a four minute mile seemed beyond human possibility, like climbing Mount Everest or walking on the moon.

It was a windy spring day, on the 6th of May 1954, during an athletic meeting between the British AAA and Oxford University, that Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, breaking through the “four munite mile” psychological barrier. John Landy, a great runner of that day, had never run faster than within 1.5 seconds of the four minute barrier. Then 56 days after Roger Bannister's breakthrough, John Landy ran the mile in 3 minutes and 57.9 seconds in Finland. Later, Bannister and Landy raced in the 'Mile of the Century', where Bannister won in 3 minutes and 58.8 seconds.

The breaking of the four minute mile was so significant that is was named by Forbes as one of the greatest athletic achievements. What made this event so significant is that once the four minute barrier was broken by Roger Bannister, within three years, by the end of 1957, 16 other runners also cracked the four minute mile.

Describing the psychological impact of the four minute barrier in an interview with Forbes, Sir Roger Bannister, who was knighted in 1975, related that:

'The world record then was four minutes, 1.4 seconds, held by Sweden’s Gunder Haegg. It had been stuck there for nine years, since 1945. It didn’t seem logical to me, as a physiologist/doctor, that if you could run a mile in four minutes, one and a bit seconds, you couldn’t break four minutes. But it had become a psychological as well as a physical barrier. In fact the Australian, John Landy, having run four minutes, two seconds, three times, is reported to have commented, “It’s like a wall.” I couldn’t see the psychological side.'

So what happened to the physical barrier that prevented humans from running the four minute mile? Was there a sudden leap in human evolution? No. It was the change in thinking that made the difference, Bannister had shown that breaking the four minute mile was possible. Often the barriers we perceive are only barriers in our own minds. Previous runners had been held back by their beliefs and mindsets. When the barrier was broken, other runners saw that is was possible and then 16 runners went on to do the same.

Our beliefs and mindsets limit or expand our world. Beliefs have power over us because we treat them as though they’re true. Beliefs influence what you attempt or choose not to attempt in life. They determine what you pay attention to, how you react to difficult situations and ultimately your attitude. Success and failure begin and end in what the mind believes is possible.

The first step a leader can take in influencing the world around them is to change how they think about it. If Roger Bannister accepted that the four minute mile was a physical limitation, he would never have tried to break it. Just like the runners of time past, many of the barriers that hold us back today exist only in our minds.

What are the 'four minute miles' that are holding you back in your personal and professional life?

Are their any role models who are challenging existing limits that you can learn from?