An intangible quality, but one every business relies on to excel, developing a culture of leadership is an ongoing and primary concern for many. 

Speaking at an AIM WA Signature Leadership Seminar in March, Professor Barry Posner made the 19-hour trip from San Francisco to Perth to share his thoughts on leadership culture – the difference it makes, the myths inhibiting leadership development and the fundamentals behind growing the best possible leaders. 

According to Professor Posner, instilling belief, elevating aspirations, initiating challenges, engaging support and deliberately practicing are the fundamental traits needed for a culture of leadership. 

“The best leaders are learners,” he said. “Leadership isn’t about controlling; it’s about letting go. Leaders don’t live in the past, they live in the future.” Quizzing attendees, Professor Posner asked if leaders were born or made. The resounding response was in favour of the latter. “All leaders are born and made,” he told a stunned room. “Leadership, fundamentally, is a skill and everyone has got it. I’m not saying we’re all equally talented, but I am suggesting to you if you thought leadership was a skill, then you would be appreciating that this is something you are capable of doing. 

“Everyone can sing, but some can sing better than others. If you think about all the people in your organisation – it’s not an issue of who’s got it, but rather, everyone has got something, so how do you develop their skills and talents?” 

Cultivating Leadership 
Professor Posner later posed another question: if the vast majority of people have leadership capabilities, then what is getting in their way in becoming exemplary leaders? He said it all came down to myths which inhibited leadership development. 

The first is the talent myth. This equates to someone who believes if they search far and wide they will find people with the talent they’re looking for already built in with no training required. “The truth is leadership is not a talent you have or don’t have,” Professor Posner said. “It’s an observable and learnable set of skills and abilities.” 

The second hurdle is the position myth; a belief that when you have a position at the top you’re automatically a leader and if you don’t have a title or official authority, you are not. “The truth is leading is about the actions you take, not your location in the hierarchy,” Professor Posner said. “It’s about the challenges you pursue, the people you engage, the values that guide your decision-making and the visions you have for yourself and others.” 

Other common perilous assumptions include the 'strengths' myth – only taking on tasks in which you are strong and assigning areas where you don’t have natural talent to others; the 'self-reliance' myth – leaders have to be independent and autonomous, without expressing doubts about their abilities or requesting support; and the 'it comes naturally' myth - people admire those who make it seem way and attribute that ease to natural ability.

It’s not an issue of who’s got it, but rather, everyone has got something, so how do you develop their skills and talents? 

“The best leaders become the best because they work hard at becoming the best,” Professor Posner said. “You can’t do your best without making mistakes and learning from them. The best leaders know they can’t achieve greatness all by themselves; they know they need the support, energy, resources and commitment of other people.” 

Drawing from Stanford University Emeritus Professor Albert Bandura’s belief that, “unless you believe your action can produce change, you probably won’t try”, Professor Posner noted the importance of “learning by doing and adapting to diverse situations and change by never ignoring failure, but using it to grow and progress”. 

“A person with a fixed mindset believes people’s abilities and capabilities are fixed and there’s never a limit,” he said. “If you don’t believe you can, you probably can’t, because you won’t.”

Sandra Argese is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.