One of the most debated questions about leadership is pretty fundamental: Are leaders born, or made? Dozens of studies have been conducted to tease out the answer, but when you ask Scott Snook for his take, he says simply, “Yes. No.” He chuckles for a moment and adds, “It’s both. This is just a variation of our nature versus nurture debate that’s been going on for years, which is, in my opinion, a red herring.”
Snook, a retired Army colonel who’s now a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, believes some of us are born in the deep end of the gene pool when it comes to some of the attributes that contribute to being a successful leader. “Others,” he says, “are splashing around in the shallow end of the baby pool.”
The good news is that despite certain genetic predispositions, we have the opportunity to make the most of them. Or not. “There’s no question that we can develop and grow into roles and become more effective leaders,” he explains.
How we get there—that is, to the top of the leadership game—is a matter of developing two key skills, according to Snook. “Self-awareness and self-acceptance,” he proclaims. “Two lifelong journeys.”
Of course, it’s not that simple. In fact, Snook’s self-professed hot button is when people posit, “Isn’t it obvious?” It takes dedication to go the distance, as well as guidance. But the answers and the results are within each of us, he believes.
For Snook, who insists he was somewhere in the middle of the born/made spectrum, it was about figuring out early on how to navigate the former. As the son of a junior high school principal and an eighth-grade English teacher, he learned how to rise to the formidable trial of being an awkward preteen with both of his parents in uncomfortably close proximity. “That was more of a challenge” than being the younger of two siblings, he says, “an initial crucible in my life. Boys at that age are like hormones in tennis shoes, and I was trying to figure out who I was.”
Searching For Self-Awareness
The crucible and the hot button are two things that Snook cites often when referring to leadership development. Of the former, Snook explains that one major psychological finding is that people under stress tend to revert to their dominant response. Citing his military experience, he details how in basic training, “we starve people and put them out in the cold and don’t let them sleep. That’s when you’re going to really figure out who people are.” He contends that we can all be our best selves when everything’s going well, but things change under stress.
In a similar vein, Snook maintains that what sets people off is also very telling. “As soon as someone says, ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ every bone in my body wants to scream at them, no matter what they’re going to say, and say, ‘It’s probably not as frickin’ obvious as you think it is.’ If I was hooked up to a blood pressure cuff, my blood pressure would shoot up. That’s totally irrational, but it’s just a part of who I am. I believe the world is much grayer and not black and white.”
Homing in on these behaviors and hot buttons is important to Snook because doing so identifies someone’s purpose and his or her very essence. Purpose is a tricky word, he says, because it easily devolves into clichéd statements. But it’s a different dialogue when you get at someone’s hot button. “There’s something so important to you that you’ll do stupid things,” he explains. “You’ll get literally hot, emotionally, psychologically hot, off-center, which means you’re right near who you are.”
Another way to get to the center of self-awareness, which is critical for developing good leaders, is to ask what people did when they had free time as children. “To go back with resources and the world unconstrained, what do you do?” Snook muses. He remembers one woman who worked in the healthcare industry detailing how as a child growing up in Scotland, she was always searching for frogs.
“She just lit up and started jumping up and down,” Snook recalls. “’This is how I do my current job,’” he remembers her explaining, “’and this is how I did my last job. They’re not frogs, but I’m the one who always finds the missing piece. No one else can see it, and I find it.’”
That was her purpose statement, Snook contends, and the words aren’t some ambiguous corporate-speak that sound good. “Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream.’ He didn’t say, ‘I have a mission statement.’”
Once his students can get past this initial test of their hot buttons and stress behaviors, Snook says they can then gain a greater sense of comfort in who they really are. “Most of the work that I’ve been doing is to help people with the first question, to figure out what gift they have,” he says. If he were to stop there, “the arrow would be stuck pointing back at you, and I truly believe that’s the opposite of leading.”
Snook makes a very clear distinction on the first day of every program he teaches between leader development and leadership development. He points out that words that end in -ship, such as salesmanship, seamanship, sportsmanship, scholarship, and penmanship, can be learned by the old 70-20-10 rule. That is that you learn to do any of them 70 percent by actually doing the thing, 20 percent by getting feedback and coaching, and about 10 percent in a classroom or from a book. So it is with leadership development.
If his students are interested in leadership development, Snook tells them to take a course on power and influence. Having spent the bulk of his career in the military, he observed firsthand how rank and hierarchy play out in everyday settings.
To illustrate this point, Snook cites a study that looked at all the different branches of the military and found that the most top-down and hierarchical leadership styles were found among Army chaplains and physicians. “Their actual personal style of leading had to be more directive,” he explains, while the most senior officers were the least directive. The greater the rank difference, the more empowering the leaders tended to be.
“Power is just potential influence,” Snook says. “When it’s formalized, you don’t have to use it,” so you actually start to develop the greater ability to use interpersonal skills to be a leader. “Above a certain level of intelligence or charisma, it’s all about the social skills, being able to engage other people,” he adds. “It starts with yourself and becomes interpersonal, and then the challenge is, how you do that at scale.”
That’s why leader development, as far as Snook is concerned, is the same thing as human development. “By figuring out who you are, who you’re not, being comfortable with who you are and who you’re not, having a greater sense of clarity and comfort toward your true north, you’ll be more likely to step up and lead, be more effective at doing it, and as important to me as both of those, live a more meaningful life.”