August 17, 2015
Column | basic training

Busting the leadership myth

I used to believe with my whole being that leaders are born and not made—that they are gifted with innate, and different, skills from the moment of conception. No longer.

By Art van Bodegraven

We wring our hands and wail endlessly about the Great Talent Shortage in the supply chain management (SCM) arena. And with cause. We have reason to be deeply concerned about how a lack of critical resources can constrain our ability to meet customer and market needs and expectations.

Putting aside for a moment our collective inability to address the shortage in a comprehensive and sustainable way, we have a perhaps deeper need. That is, we are not going to realize our potential with respect to enterprise success until and unless we develop within our ranks genuine leaders, who, in turn, develop their successors as next-generation leaders.

In consequence, I turn frequently to the topic of leadership in SCM. It is vital to our futures. It is vital to our fortunes as individuals. And we've got to get it right for now and for the future.


I've blogged, written, spoken, opined, educated, and babbled about leadership and leadership issues, especially in the supply chain management sphere, for just about forever. It is clear to me that leadership behaviors and attributes are worthy of serious analysis and research. Sure, some of what has been written is designed to attract attention and build name recognition for the author(s). But most of it is honest in attempting to organize and codify what we are observing and learning about the topic.

There are certain attributes and behaviors of leaders that are valid assessments and can be used to predict success and failure. What are these attributes? Although the list might vary depending on whose book you read, core leadership strengths include vision, communication, integrity, empathy, self-control/discipline, coaching skill, and a positive attitude.

This broad and nuanced view is far more useful and complete than one- and two-word descriptors such as "tyrant," "martinet," "commander," "slave-driver," "straw boss," and "mother hen," which are woefully inadequate, often incorrect, always incomplete, unnecessarily values-laden, and relics of an uninformed age.

Further, strength in one leadership attribute does not indicate genuine leadership ability. Josef Stalin possessed (or was possessed by) a strong vision and was spectacularly self-controlled. He was not much of a communicator, though, and empathy had no place in his modus operandi. Adolf Hitler was a mesmerizing communicator and could focus on a vision to the point of paralysis, but he fell short in several other departments, all more important than his strengths.

We have come a long way, at least in some parts of the world, in transforming leadership from the most bloodthirsty and unprincipled, to the most powerful, to the best alliance-builder, to the appointed (divinely or otherwise) head of state or enterprise, to the longest-tenured (or last survivor), to the broadly talented, gifted, genuine, sincere, intelligent, and balanced thinker, planner, and doer.

Today, we are able to think and talk about the need for leaders to be many things to many people, and to be smart enough to surround themselves with other skills to fill in any gaps. The Master and Commander no longer has a place in a business enterprise. The "My Way or the Highway" guy no longer gets to drive the corporate bus. Even in organizations in which command is essential—e.g., military structures—senior leaders are learning the value of diversity, inclusion, collaboration, and motivations beyond a threat of flogging.


With all of the enhanced understandings we have gained, we, in general, still tend to see leadership in terms of what we learned, what was a legitimate norm, a generation or more ago. Why? Probably for the same reasons that armies have trained to fight the last war for thousands of years, with no one planning how to do anything but react when brass-buttoned musketeers marched in rows, knelt, fired, reloaded, and were shot dead with cannon fire.

So it might be with disruptive technology, or packaging, or marketing, or functionality. Very few are developing the disruptions. Even fewer are planning what to do to anticipate, get ahead of, combat, and defeat the new threats.

Leaders, therefore, must adapt last-century learning for new-century problem solving—or the new-century problems are not going to get solved. For example, an immediate reaction is generally to gather the tried and true resources close at hand to deal with the issue du jour. Those farther out from the inner circle get left out, and those in far-flung geographies don't get 1) involved in, or 2) exposed to, leadership development.

Add to that the belated recognition that success in any and all leadership styles and challenges lies in having a strong EQ (emotional quotient)—basically self-awareness, empathy, and sensitivity—and the reasons for our continuing frustrations and failures become more clear.

Now comes a cadre of learned, if not exactly field-tested, observers to point out how new-era leaders need to extend their capabilities. Here is their take on how to approach complex problem solving:

  • Look at the problem differently. Don't rely on what you think you know; instead, focus your attention on what you don't know. Take the reins; you are responsible for your own leadership development.
  • Trade in your old fixed perspective on a new pristine growth commitment. Get rid of, and get over, self-imposed limitations. "I can't do" or "I'm not good at" are hiding places—tear them down. Instead, commit to learning and mastering everything you need to succeed. Know that you can make things happen and make a difference no matter where you are in the usual artificial organizational hierarchies.
  • Know when to move vertically, or horizontally, in leadership development. Do you need to add personal skills or should you add skills to the team structure? When should you upgrade and when should you blow up the building and start over?

Can you tackle all this? If so, you can, by expanding, broadening, and demonstrating 21st century leadership behavior, inspire and motivate as a genuine leader.


True confession. I used to believe with my whole being that leaders are born and not made—that we could educate and train managers, but that leaders were gifted with innate, and different, skills from the moment of conception. I pooh-poohed the military notion of developing leaders, thinking that commanding might be taught, but surely not authentic leadership.

No longer. We now know that EQ, the key to unlocking leadership secrets, can be developed and honed. We have living laboratory evidence that leaders can sharpen their techniques and styles with practice and intent. And now that we know what characteristics and attributes make for superb leadership, we can better determine how to use the tools and predispositions involved.

True enough, some seem to have a big head start on the core elements of authentic and effective leadership. But we can learn what it takes to be as effective as they seem to be. OK, not everyone can be a leader; not everyone wants to be a leader. But the idea that by accident of birth one is locked out of a leadership role forever has been shown to be false—and not a safe place to hide.

So, step up and lead. We need your looking-ahead talent (and not your rear-view mirror history). The supply chain management profession needs you, at your best. Your customers need you; your company needs you. You need you—as a leader.

Author's note: Ken Ackerman, my long-time partner in supply chain education and writing, co-author of Fundamentals of Supply Chain Management, and co-creator of the BasicTraining column, is now devoting his efforts to numerous other interests, more than should be allowed by law. I thank him for his mentoring and input, and treasure his continuing friendship.

About the Author

Art van Bodegraven
Art van Bodegraven was, among other roles, chief design officer for the DES Leadership Academy. He passed away on June 18, 2017. He will be greatly missed.

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