For some CEOs, there were early signs of the leader within. Boys (mainly) who had been made captains of sport in (usually) private schools realised they might be onto something when ‘he is too competitive’ cropped up on their school reports. Boys (mainly) that went to state schools and made it to good universities ‘copied the public school ‘classic leader’ type – it was easy to pick up’ (CEO, clothing). Others, inspired by role-models, decided they wanted to be captains of industry in their teens. For these individuals, the Ascent of Leader-Man was as inevitable as it was natural. Somehow, they always ended up leading their peers. Playing up, and playing the game.
Others, however, discover their latent leadership ability much later. Most entrepreneurs become leaders as a by-product of pursuing a world-changing idea. Their motivation is to create something different. ‘I am building a business that attacks the demoralising norms of the archaic, over-protected world of banking,’ says a leading peer-to-peer lender, adding ‘I was never, ever the leader-type identified by the investment bank I worked for. It just didn’t interest me.’
The self-effacing regional director of Asia-Pacific for a global food company describes how, by becoming marketing director for the UK operation, he had achieved an earlier ambition. Looking around his new peers on the board, he mused ‘I wonder what it would be like to have the whole train set?’ Within three years he had surprised himself by getting hold of the train sets of France, Greece and Spain.
Leaders agree on the most important innate qualities required to be a good leader. Unsurprisingly, these are ambition, drive, clarity of purpose and the ability to take people with you. This is not a menu; to lead a large organisation well you have to be first class at all four. These are seen as timeless, classical qualities: ‘Leadership skills were the same for Caesar as they were for Patton’ (CEO, fashion). You are born to lead. ‘You just naturally love solving problems, learning from life and being outside your comfort zone’ says a leader in housing.
As a CEO in financial services cautions, ‘People can get into position but turn out not to be leaders. Usually, innate ambition and drive are the missing qualities.’