University of Southern California

The Secrets Of Great Leadership
September 24, 2010

Are people born leaders? Maybe. But research shows it's not the most important thing. What matters more than anything else is what one learns on the job. "Experience - not genetics, not training programs, not business school - is the primary driver of leadership," writes USC Marshall Professor Morgan W. McCall. He should know. McCall, author of numerous articles and books on leadership and winner of "Distinguished Professional Contributions Award" from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, has a long and distinguished career as an expert in leadership.

Business schools can give us tools to support our experiences, he notes, "but not the perspective to use them for that purpose."

Think about your own leadership capabilities by acknowledging these seven principles and considering how your own experiences have shaped you as a leader:

  • To the extent that leadership is learned, it is learned through experience.
  • Some experiences matter more than others.
  • An experience becomes more powerful when it presents a challenge.
  • Different types of experiences teach different leadership lessons. A job or assignment can be used for developmental purposes.
  • Personal or professional obstacles do not inherently hamper experience.
  • Learning rarely happens in a linear fashion - it's dynamic, and it's impacted by many things.

Understanding the role of experiences in leadership can also help you develop leadership skills in others. For example, you can:

  • Devise selection methods that discern how well candidates have learned from past experiences, and how significantly their leadership skills have improved over time.
  • Identify specific growth goals, then measure success through 360-feedback tools and annual/semiannual job performance assessments.
  • Provide continual coaching to employees on ways to improve their leadership skills; and coach supervisors on ways to maximize their subordinates' learning experiences.

The bottom line: Experience is the most promising catalyst for leadership development in the corporate world - so harness its power with effective strategies that encourage and shape your own leadership capacities and the leaders in your ranks.

From: Morgan McCall (2010), "Recasting Leadership Development", Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 3, 3-19.

Learn more about Morgan and his work on leadership here.