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Leaders: Built not Born

by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

The age-old adage that leaders are born not made isn’t accurate, contends Stephen Zaccaro of George Mason University, who specializes in developing leaders.

In fact, he contends, leadership is grounded in a number of teachable skills and executive coaches can play a major role in assisting leaders make changes that will help them become better managers.

He concedes that some people have personality traits that may lead them into leadership roles, but if a person has strong enough desire and willingness to learn, then leadership skills can be taught.

And often organizations turn to executive coaches to assist their emerging leaders.

Zaccaro, a professor of psychology at GMU, will be among the speakers at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s upcoming consortium on “Executive Coaching for Effective Performance: Leading Edge Practice and Research” Oct. 17-18 in Cincinnati. He is an authority on leadership development and training and has coached managers at various levels.

“Coaching is not a one-size fits all proposition. It has to be tailored to the individual and the areas in which he or she needs to grow and become stronger,” he said.

One result of coaching, he maintains, is changing the way people think and function within the organizations. Sometimes developing leaders find it difficult to make the kind of changes they will need as they take on more responsibility. “The effectiveness of coaching is defined essentially in terms of bringing about such change,” Zaccaro said.

For example, for the first time in their careers, mid-level managers advancing into potential executive positions must learn to understand strategic thinking and develop a big picture view of the business. Previously they focused on operational strategy but now their involvement in the organization is much broader and no longer focused on one area.

Another challenge facing leaders as they rise within the organization from lower management is to delegate job assignments, often tasks they previously handled themselves. With delegating comes trust that jobs will be completed efficiently and on time. Delegation without trust can lead to micromanaging, a sure recipe for failure as a leader, says Zaccaro.

He adds that leaders at all levels often need to develop better skills in “active listening” and communication. An effective leader will ensure that workers are knowledgeable about the organization’s business strategy and their role in meeting key business goals. Also, providing the right kind of feedback, both positive and negative, is important in letting employees know how they are performing.

Coaches can help a person think differently and broaden his or her perspective on situations they are confronting. “A good coach will ask good questions and guide business professionals to a better understanding of themselves and others they work with,” said Zaccaro.

In his work on leadership development, he has seen coaching benefit all levels of leadership. For example, lower level leaders might need assistance in supervising problematic employees while higher level executives often face a challenge in dealing with the tremendous pressure of work. “There are so many things happening at once and they face great pressure from top management to produce. For some it can be overwhelming,” he said. “Sometimes coaching with upper level managers is time and space management.”

One thing coaches avoid is telling people how to run their business. “That doesn’t go far in coaching,” Zaccaro said, although a good coach will make an effort to understand the nature of the business.

Understanding the business is only part of the preparation a coach will do before undertaking an assignment. In order to learn as much as possible about the client, a coach can administer several assessments, including a 360-degree assessment that gathers information from a sampling of people, both above and below the level of the person being coached.

There will also be a series of discussions to learn about the person’s concerns, challenges, and thoughts about various aspects of the job. “A good coach will employ both formal and informal assessments to identify his client’s strengths and weaknesses before beginning the coaching,” Zaccaro said. “Actually, many already know their weaknesses and are looking for ways to overcome them.”

Most people he has worked with are receptive to coaching and see its value in their development as leaders. “It is very rewarding to see the light bulb go on as they think about things in a manner they had not previously considered. Coaching helps them see situations from different perspectives, which adds to their growth as leaders,” Zaccaro pointed out.

“Coachees who are most engaged in the process are the ones who benefit the most from coaching,” he added.


For more information, Dr. Zaccaro can be contacted at 703-993-1355 or email at szaccaro@gmu.edu

Zaccaro will be among nearly 20 speakers at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s Leading Edge Consortium entitled “Executive Coaching for Effective Performance: Leading Edge Practice and Research” Oct. 17-18 at the Westin Hotel in Cincinnati. For more information about the Consortium, including the speakers and their topics, go to the Leading Edge Consortium home page at www.siop.org/lec or call Clif Boutelle or Stephany Schings at 419-353-0032. 

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of more than 7,000 industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists whose member’s study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement.  SIOP’s mission is to enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice and teaching of industrial-organizational psychology.  For more information about SIOP, including Media Resources, which lists nearly 2,000 experts in more than 100 topic areas, visit the SIOP Web site at www.siop.org.