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Today’s organizations understand the value of leadership. Every year, companies invest billions of dollars on leadership training to identify, prepare, and develop effective leaders. With so much emphasis on leadership, it’s worth taking a step back to reassess why leaders are important for an organization, and to ask whether or not anyone can step into a leadership role successfully.

What do leaders do?

One of the primary responsibilities of leaders is to set the direction for their teams. While individual team members may be focused on their specific tasks, the leader must maintain a “big picture” perspective to see how those individual projects contribute to a greater organizational goal. By consistently aligning activities to the overall mission, leaders ensure that team members understand what they’re working towards and keeps their efforts moving in the right direction.

Leaders also play a large role in shaping the culture of groups they work with. In addition to setting the direction for work activities, they have a great deal of influence over how that work is done. A supportive leader who communicates openly and honestly while making a genuine effort to help team members succeed creates the foundation for a culture based on trust and respect. If they reinforce a negative culture by withholding information or trying to motivate team members through fear, they will have difficulty keeping people engaged.

In a team context, leaders play an important role as coalition and consensus builders. They find ways to secure buy-in regarding new ideas and work to keep team members focused on the same goals. Effective leaders understand that people don’t agree to do things “just because,” and so they’re constantly working to find ways to bring their teams together in order to facilitate collaboration. They identify sources of conflict and utilize a number of strategies to resolve disagreements in ways that help the team become stronger and more unified in its purpose.

On a day-to-day basis, good leaders put a great deal of effort into motivating and inspiring team members. Engaged employees consistently produce better outcomes than disengaged ones, so it’s critical that leaders explore every possible avenue for getting the best out of their teams. Creating a positive work culture based on trust and open communication is a good first step in this process, but leaders can also inspire people by setting a good example and encouraging them with positive and helpful feedback.

Leaders can also prove valuable as change agents within an organization. People are often resistant to change, preferring the comfort of the familiar and the predictable. If leaders have already established a reputation for honesty and reliability, it will be much easier for them to encourage their team members to embrace change, or at least convince them to keep an open mind about it. Leaders also function as a key intermediary between employees and organizational leadership during a change situation. They can advocate for their teams when people have concerns as well as provide explanations for why changes are occurring in the first place.

Can Just Anyone be a Leader?

While plenty of books have been written that cast leadership in almost mystical terms, the truth is that effective leadership depends upon a specific set of skills that anyone can learn. Good leadership training programs can help people to develop these skills over time, allowing them to become effective leaders.

Leaders generally need to possess a number of soft skills to be successful. Since so much of their responsibilities revolve around being able to influence people, learning how to empathize with others, manage conflict, and build trust are important strategies every aspiring leader should develop. This is especially important for leadership candidates who may possess the technical competencies for their position, but haven’t had the opportunity to develop these soft skills.

Fortunately, technologies such as e-learning tools and virtual instructor led training (VILTS) have made it easier than ever before to provide continuing education that develops and refines leadership skills. From adaptive simulations that promote soft skills to courses that heighten emotional awareness, aspiring leaders can identify their weaknesses and find materials that help them expand and refine their skill sets.

Who has the Potential to be a Great Leader?

While it may be true that anyone can learn to be a leader, the fact remains that some people are more naturally suited to leadership roles than others. These people usually possess a number of characteristics that sets them apart from their peers and makes them high-potential employees. While they are often high performers, not all high-performing employees have great leadership potential. The challenge for any organization is to find these candidates and prepare them to take on leadership roles in the future.

High-potential employees tend to have high levels of self-awareness and are very open to feedback. They want to have their performance assessed so they can identify areas that need improvement. In addition, they are also open-minded to new ideas and strategies. Driven by curiosity, high-potential employees want to learn about everything. They constantly ask questions and take responsibility for their own development.

While charisma isn’t necessarily an essential trait for aspiring leaders, many high-potential candidates are articulate, respectful, and possess high levels of emotional intelligence that make it easy for them to interact with others. Communication comes easy to them, allowing them to benefit more from the soft skill training featured in most leadership development programs.

Most importantly, however, high-potential employees express a desire to lead at an early stage. Many people possess some of the qualities that would otherwise make them great leadership candidates, but if they prefer to be a team member or serve as a close assistant to another leader, pushing them into a leadership position may not be beneficial for their development. There is a certain amount of risk that comes with accepting the responsibility of leadership, and some people are simply not comfortable with taking on that role.

So while it’s certainly true that most people can benefit from leadership development and learn to be an effective leader, it’s not in an organization’s best interests to push just anyone into a leadership role. By working to identify high-potential employees, leadership development programs can select candidates who are better suited to assuming those critical roles.