The Gifted Leader

December 10, 2015 By Katherine Tyler Scott

One dictionary definition of gift is “the notable capacity for doing something.” When applied to leadership it infers an extraordinary and natural ability to make things happen and to influence others. 

In our decades of leadership education, practice and development we have studied thousands of leaders, and every one of them had significant natural ability – what I would describe as gifts; but not all were equally effective.   

There are theories that believe there are innate characteristics that set apart a few for leadership; the underlying belief is that not everyone is a leader. We know from trait theorists that many leaders have certain shared qualities irrespective of background or professional identity. James MacGregor Burns’ seminal work on transformational leadership moved our understanding from the transactional view of “quid pro quo” exchanges in leadership and inspired an exploration and valuing of the psychological aspects of leadership. 

The Ki ThoughtBridge integrated approach to leadership development is a combination of the best thinking and practice – one that brings experience and research together in ways that inform both. 

In seeing leaders in a more integrated holistic way we have discovered some truths about gifted leaders:  

There are certain things that we have noticed about gifted leaders:

  1. They have an impressive knowledge base of subject matter from diverse fields of study; i.e., humanities, science, psychology, etc.
  2. They are lifelong learners with an almost unquenchable thirst for learning and for acquiring knowledge they can apply to situations.
  3. They are grounded in their self-knowledge; know their own story, and are very conscious of the trajectory their lives have taken. Their stories are narratives of overcoming adversity, maturation, and achievement. Their past becomes a source of identity, pride and motivation to always learn and make sense of experience. They apply their wisdom to themselves.
  4. They are aware of the past and present while remaining focused on the future. These gifted leaders seem prescient because they are intently observing the present and seeing trends and anticipating changes. They are intent on determining how to position their institutions to deal with what is known and unknown.
  5. They are inquisitive searchers; always seeking different and better ways to do things. They desire and work toward mastery while understanding that perfection is not attainable.
  6. The gifted leader is passionate about what they do, and the love of their work is infectious in the sense that it provokes others to be authentic and committed to change.
  7. These leaders experience joy at seeing others learn and achieve at their highest level. They celebrate the successes and they invest time and resources in the next generations of leaders.
  8. They are avid readers; many are in book clubs or discussion groups. They value the different perspectives that others bring and delight in having their perceptions respectfully challenged.
  9. They are disciplined about their work. They know that practice is essential to “polishing” their gifts and using them effectively, i.e., a natural orator must work at the speech if it is to be a great speech.
  10. The gifted leader knows the self as an essential aspect of being effective. They are reflective and as a result insightful about themselves, their motivation and behavior. This self-understanding gives them confidence and an awareness and empathy for others. 

There is no magic in these findings from our study and practice of leadership. It is challenging and inspiring work; it is never ending, immediate and in the moment work. Gifted leaders, through their being and doing, evoke the gifts of others for the good of all. 

Happy Holidays!

Katherine Tyler Scott