How to tell if you’re a natural leader |

How to tell if you’re a natural leader

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I’ll bet you know a natural leader. Maybe you are one.

Maybe you’re a mom who started a support group for the parents of children with special needs.

Maybe you’re a concerned citizen who mobilized a group of preservation-minded neighbors to halt the destruction of a venerable old building.

Maybe you’re a churchgoer who convinced some of your fellow parishioners to help mentor at-risk kids.

Or maybe you simply organized your company’s first softball league.

In business, we talk a lot about leadership, and often take pains to differentiate between “leaders” and “managers.” Usually, this dichotomy hinges on the “vision thing.” Leaders imagine a future state and a chart a course to get there—they’re change agents. Managers simply preside over the status quo—they’re administrators.

This article was originally posted on the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX), an open innovation project aimed at reinventing management for the 21st century.

While this distinction is useful, it doesn’t go far enough. Leaders in traditional organizations usually derive a large share of their power from their positions—that’s the case for CEOs, cabinet officers, and high school principals. In other settings, a leader’s power may reflect the freely given support of peers and followers—examples include Mother Teresa, Linux creator Linus Torvalds, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

There is a distinction, then, between a “titled” leader and a “natural” leader. A titled leader relies heavily on positional power to get things done; a natural leader is able to mobilize others without the whip of formal authority. These categories aren’t mutually exclusive. In his role as an Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu was both a titled leader and a natural leader. The distinction, though, is important. To see why, try a little thought experiment.

Think about your role at work. Now assume for a moment that you no longer have any positional authority—you’re not a project leader, a department head or vice president. There’s no title on your business card and you have no direct reports. Assume further that you have no way of penalizing those who refuse to do your bidding—you can’t fire them or cut their pay. Given this, how much could you get done in your organization? How much of a leader would you be if you no longer held even a tiny, tarnished scepter of bureaucratic power?

Here’s another way to unpack this. Ask yourself what percentage of your power and influence at work comes from . . .

(a) Your position-based prerogatives (which might include an ability to make unilateral decisions and commit resources)?
(b) Your ability to impose sanctions (by issuing reprimands, denying promotions, etc.)?
(c) Your preferential access to information, decision-makers and key meetings?

And what percentage rests on:

(d) Your widely acknowledged wisdom or expertise?
(e) Your vision, values and praiseworthy personality traits?
(f) Your unique organizational capabilities (including your ability to coalesce opinions, attract resources, plot strategy and sequence activities)?

In other words, how much of your power comes from what you are (the VP for HR, for example), and how much comes from who you are (a creative problem solver with a great personal network)?

Readers, what do you think makes a “natural” leader? Have you come across many?



You include organizational capabilities as one of the essential skills of a natural leader. You should expand your thesis to include natural leaders who never organize anything. One example that comes to mind is Alexandre Solzhenitsyn. Another is Thomas Paine.

Steve Stites

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Bharat Aadami


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