Leadership decoded: what makes some lead and others follow?

Business guru tells Dublin seminar there’s nothing innate about leadership - it’s all learned behaviour

Barry Posner

Barry Posner


What makes a leader? Are they bestowed with God-given talents that separate them from the herd or have they gleaned something from the ether that eludes the rest of us? And why are we inclined to follow them?

According to leadership guru and best-selling author Barry Posner, it boils down to one thing: credibility. He hasn’t plucked the notion out of thin air either; it’s the culmination of three decades of research.

By credibility, Posner means honesty, competence, forward-looking and inspiring. These traits are what thousands of people in the thousands of surveys consistently say they look for in their leaders, whether in business, politics or sport.

Posner was speaking yesterday at the start of a four-day business conference at All Hallows College in Dublin, organised in conjunction with other Vincentian colleges overseas.

The good news for under-achieving lackeys is that there is nothing genetic or innate about good leadership. It’s basically a set of skills that can be assimilated, at least by those who are self-aware, exhibit inner strength and most importantly of all, have the intelligence to see what doesn’t work, says Posner.

He has been arguing for 30 years that leadership is not some exalted phenomenon that lies beyond the reach of most people but a series of processes and behaviours that can be acquired with self discipline.

Chief among these behaviours – and the most proven predictor of future managerial success – is the ability to learn when things go wrong. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” he says, borrowing the quote from boxer Mike Tyson. It’s how we adapt when things go wrong that counts.

Another “critical success factor” for those in top jobs is the quality of the relationships they cultivate. Posner believes people don’t really quit companies, they quit managers, or more precisely bad managers.

Whether they realise or not, ordinary people are in leadership roles all the time, he says. “It’s not a position or a place. So you don’t have to be a manager, a boss, a supervisor in order to lead. You can be the brother, the sister, the colleague, the teacher; these are all leadership opportunities.”

The only real question is whether you do it badly or do it well, he says.