A CEO in financial services cautions, ‘People get into position but turn out not to be leaders. Real ambition and drive often turn out to be the missing qualities. You can’t learn to be a leader.’
Except: she did learn. Her father ran a factory, and when she graduated he gave her a new, specialist chemical product to take to market. She learned everything on the job and after twelve months had achieved £1 million in sales. ‘My father,’ she says, ‘was very collegiate, in very un-collegiate times.’ To this day, when she is running five different businesses, she has ‘people like my father’ whom she turns to for advice.
Every leader we spoke to tells a similar story about someone, or something, that helped them spark or improve on their natural leadership ability. Each story is personal and unique, but the underlying theme is identical: by luck or judgment, either an individual showed them what great leadership looked like, or an experience spurred them on to become a better leader.
Fathers loom large in leaders’ formative stories. A CEO in the leisure industry has a very strong sense of generational growth and improvement. His grandfather was a docker, his father an entrepreneur, and he himself was the first member of his family to go to university, let alone become a business leader. ‘Which’, he reflects, ‘could make things quite difficult for my son.’ The CEO of a leading environmental organisation describes how seeing her mother struggle after her father left home made her swear she would never be put in a similarly vulnerable position. ‘It made me hard-nosed and enormously driven to succeed,’ she says.
Another speaks of his admiration for his father, who studied his way out of the mine and retired as a director of Rolls-Royce. He was an alcoholic, and his son the European CEO carries his father’s Alcoholics Anonymous coin with its serenity prayer everywhere he goes. ‘It talks about knowing what you can change, and knowing what you can’t change,’ he says, ‘Dad prepared me.’