If you think you're not cut out to be a leader, you're probably wrong

By Roshan Thiran

Whenever I’m involved in discussions on leadership, occasionally a voice will pop up and declare: “I’m not made to be a leader; it’s not for me.”

In most cases, these voices will belong to those who place the notion of leadership on a very high pedestal. They will look at great leaders of the past and present and believe that they’re not at all like those iconic figures. Because of this, they are convinced that they’re not made to be a leader.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The question of what it means to be a leader is still a hot topic and with academic research offering over 350 definitions of ‘leadership’, there’s at least one thing about it that we know for sure: there is no single way, no magic formula that transforms someone into a leader. Just like reaching any destination, there are a lot of ways to travel the road.

I recall one conversation with someone who liked the idea of "becoming a leader one day", but who felt that they were too quiet and reserved to be one. The urge came over me to mention the achievements of people such as Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak, and Elon Musk. Energetic extroverts are hardly a phrase to describe any of these leaders.

And although we laud these names today, none of them started off as greats and none of them had it in mind to become great leaders.

As I chatted back and forth with this reluctant leader, it struck me that there’s a problem with how leadership and success are presented. Oftentimes, we talk about leadership and success as though they are qualities that should be fully attained almost immediately, and so it’s not that people don’t believe that leadership can’t be nurtured. Rather, they believe that a leader is something that you have to be now before the quality is then nurtured and refined.

But here’s the twist: everyone has it in them to be a leader.

OK, I can hear you thinking, “But I’m nothing like Lincoln or a Roosevelt or an MLK”. Neither were they to begin with. And while greatness is a fine thing to acquire if your passions and perseverance lead you there, leadership isn’t necessarily about being an epoch-defining icon.

In the majority of cases, leadership is about impacting the lives of those who will go on – or inspire others to go on – to make great things happen. Leadership is primarily about influencing others in positive ways that creates a ripple effect that end far beyond your reach.

So how can you tell that you already possess qualities that are associated with leadership? Well, there are a few signs that show your inherent leadership potential, and the following list of points is by no means exhaustive. You have leadership potential if:

  • You’ve ever coached someone in a particular skill or practice
  • You’ve ever given advice to someone about their personal or professional lives
  • You’ve ever empowered someone to realise their own potential
  • You take the time to listen to people and are interested in what they have to say
  • You’ve ever looked at a process or practice, thought that it could be done better, and looked for ways to improve how things are done
  • You’re invested in relationships and often look for ways in which you can be of service to others
  • You take time to reflect on how you interact with others and whether there are ways in which you can enhance those interactions
  • You are passionate about a cause or a mission
  • You’re inclined towards supporting and serving others, but don’t think you have it in you to be a leader (in other words, you’re modest and humble)

If you recognise yourself as being associated with one or more of the above, then guess what? You've already shown yourself to be a leader. Yes, I hear you again…

OK, so let’s sprinkle a little salt on the sugar. Just because you’re a leader doesn’t automatically make you a great leader, or even a good one. Just as there are lousy car mechanics or accountants, there are surely lousy leaders out there.

But – (you knew that was coming) – that’s where leadership development and training comes into play. Everyone has it in them to be a good (and even great) leader, because everyone has leadership potential. However, just like any other quality, it needs to be cultivated, nurtured and refined.

Whether you are quiet and reserved or loud and flamboyant is irrelevant – these traits don’t affect the quality of your leadership potential. What does affect your potential is how you nurture what you already have within you, and how you can see yourself serving others in the best way you know how.

Of course, I haven't forgot your final caveat, so let me answer that now: the best leaders are also followers – the two are not mutually exclusive. Abraham Lincoln was a master at knowing when to lead and when to seek direction, and Elon Musk doesn’t have an army of smart people around him for no reason.

So, if everyone became good or great leaders, it wouldn’t mean that there’d be no followers.

Remember, leadership is primarily about influencing others in positive ways: it doesn’t necessarily refer to marching out in front holding up the banner. In fact, many great leaders today are those who are quietly influencing others without much fanfare at all.