Can leadership be taught?

Q&A: Leadership round table

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What makes an effective leader? Can leadership qualities be acquired and developed, or are they something that we’re born with? What is the role of an employer in developing the next generation of leaders? How does leadership evolve?

As part of The Gazette Editorial Board’s ongoing focus on leadership in The Corridor, we asked several local leaders to join us for a discussion of these questions. Participating were:

• Jasmine Almoayed, economic development manager for the City of Cedar Rapids

• Jacy Haefke, senior director of diversity and workforce effectiveness at Rockwell Collins

• Aaron McCreight, president and CEO of GO Cedar Rapids

• Brandi Adam Mueller, managing director of The Overture Group

• Tom Petersen, director of communications for ITC Midwest

• DaLayne Williamson, Workforce Business Services Director for the Iowa City Area Development Group


Here are some of the highlights of what we learned:

• Especially in business settings, it can be easy to confuse “management” with “leadership.” The former is a job description; the latter is an attitude and worldview. Leadership is active and ongoing. Emotional intelligence is key.

• There is no one set of traits that make a strong leader, but there must be a will to lead. Individuals can develop leadership skills, but they must be motivated to learn.

• Leadership is developed with experience. A leader is willing to fail.

• A leader is forward thinking — they keep the vision in focus.

• Leaders don’t always have or want a leadership title. Leadership isn’t bound by an organizational chart. That’s perhaps especially true for younger generations of workers, who look for everyday opportunities to lead.


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What characteristics make someone a strong leader?

Jacy: We’ve been talking about leadership at Rockwell Collins in terms of being able to take a vision and make it reality. It’s a Warren Bennis perspective on what is leadership. Starting with that led us to conclude that our skills around leadership are: having a vision, being able to communicate or rally other people around that vision, to get movement in that direction and keeping the momentum, keeping the direction in everybody’s minds so that ultimately you achieve the desired state.

Tom: I have to differentiate management vs. leadership. I was thinking of management as getting a task done, making sure all the right pieces are in the right places. But when I thought about leadership, it really came back to that vision, it’s forward movement and how you accomplish it.

Brandi: Somebody that has that strategic vision, getting the team and motivating that team to move it forward.

Aaron: You have to be willing to lead. That’s the biggest difference for me between leadership and management. I kept coming back to the word “willingness” — to motivate, to inspire, to lead — that’s an innate thing you have to have.

DaLayne: One thing we have talked about in our office quite a bit is the servant leader. Really allowing others to do their jobs, and allowing others to lead as well and supporting them in their decisions.

Jasmine: They are people who you want to follow. Maybe they don’t have authority. Maybe they are a community member, maybe they are someone who inspires. In this community, I think there is a wide variety of people who maybe don’t hold positions of authority at work but who are responsible for so many of the amazing things that have happened in the area. It’s really that concept of servant leadership and doing things for the good of others.

Tom: I struggled a little bit with this. I was surprised by how many great leaders I could come up from a non-profit or civic standpoint and then I thought about the business sector and I went “sigh”. It gets confounded so much by the organizational chart. Too often in the business world I think we default to that hierarchy. There is an organizational chart — that’s what leadership is in an organization. But in non-profits, you have to make things happen. I think the best leaders are in a position where they can follow that passion and use that as their motivator and then motivate others, as well.

Jacy: One of the things that attracted me to Rockwell Collins was their philosophy that anybody can be a leader. Now, does everybody live up to the opportunity? That’s a whole different question. We recently tried to simplify how we’re thinking about behaviors that are really important at Rockwell Collins and we simplified it down to being able to think big, take action, and help others succeed. It’s not necessarily that a leader must have A, B, C and D qualities.

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Are there certain traits and behaviors that you feel people are born with?

Tom: Empathy, listening, communication, the spirit of servanthood — and there is a lot behind that — humility, a greater mission, taking risks in the right proportion, optimism, personal likability. Commitment — because leadership is not hard but good leadership is hard and you have to have that commitment to see it through. How much of that is innate? That’s where I struggle. Can you teach someone optimism? Can you teach someone empathy? Well, I don’t know.

Brandi: I think they are taught at a very young age, in their home or in their school. Then when they continue their education and into the workforce, it depends on what manager they get that’s going to empower them.

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Does experience play a part?

Aaron: I have a little sociology project going on in my house because I have 6-year-old twins. They are raised by the same people, they are in the same house, fed the same food, go to the same school. At some point they are going to diverge. You can already see it at 6. They are totally different kids. If I had to say one of them is a leader and one of them is not, I could say that today. Even at that young age you can see this one has that thing — that thing that leaders have that not everybody has. I think you build on that and you train that person. Look at military. Go back hundreds and hundreds of years, people were singled out for having “that thing” then trained to become leaders. The others followed orders. I think some part of being a leader is in you from birth. And then it’s molded and taught.

Jacy: I was thinking that this morning, too. You can see in a baby sometimes — personality. Do we inherit some personality characteristics that make us a little bit outgoing or deeper thinkers — that kind of thing? There might be things we are born with and early experiences that either reinforced certain behaviors and skills in us or didn’t reinforce those. I’ve seen it in myself and others that there are things that continue to be refined and shaped and developed, even at very late stages of life. But it goes back to willingness. To passion. That individual really needs to want it.

Tom: I started going down the same path, too, and I got a little sad. Is it only the inbred characteristics that can make you a leader? But then I thought again of all the folks I know that were good leaders who didn’t possess a lot of the characteristics on my list and I came up with a theory: It’s situational.

You can be a very powerful leader when there’s something that’s really motivating you. When you are willing to take risks. When you’re willing to get outside your own ego. I can think of so many instances where I have seen that, where I wouldn’t characterize that person as an overall strong leader, but who got an amazing thing accomplished because it was their passion. They had the right skills for the location they were in.

Jasmine: I think that the thing you are talking about is a desire to actually want to lead. I think if someone has the desire and their goal is to have a team of people or to lead a big project or effort, and they have a high enough EQ, they can position themselves to be that way. To some extent we put too much value on defining what a leader is. Not everyone wants that. There are plenty of people who are charismatic, they’re interesting, they’re funny, outgoing, but hey want to be individual contributors. They don’t want to run a company, they don’t want to lead some giant effort, they want to go to work, do their job and go home.

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Are there generational changes in what you expect from or identify in new leaders?

Brandi: One of the things I see when working with clients is they say, “I don’t know how we are going to be able to hire a millennial in this role because they don’t want to work that hard.” That’s not true. Millennials want to work hard, they just want to be heard. They also want to know what they need to do to continue to be appreciated.

DaLayne: I’ve talked to Millennials who really have been stifled and it’s so disappointing. Yes, they need to learn the business. Yes, they need to respect people who are there but they want to be heard.

Brandi: Just get out of their way. They want to run. They want to go fast.

Jacy: The difference with this generation is that they don’t have that sense of needing to stay at a company for the rest of their life. So, as employers our challenge is to recognize that they, in their minds, have choices that generations before them didn’t acknowledge or want to pursue. I talk to college students and that they want to pick the town that they want to live in and then they find a job in that town. It’s so different from generations before. Maybe it’s the same feeling that every other generation before had but didn’t have the willingness. They are unencumbered or unrestricted by it.

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We’ve talked about desire — someone has to want to lead. Several of you also mention emotional intelligence — emotional quotient, confidence. Can that be trained? How do you evaluate for it in identifying potential leaders?

Tom: We all think we are emotionally intelligent until we get feedback.

DaLayne: I think a lack of self awareness holds some people back.

Jasmine: I think you can. I’d say most of us are aware of certain things that perhaps make us not the most desirable in a social setting, but we tamper down a bit in a job interview or in a room full of strangers. You can train yourself to break a habit — if you’re willing to invest in the time.

Jacy: Emotional intelligence is where I understand the impact I’m having on other people and I also recognize the experiences and impact they have. It’s an awareness and I do believe that some people are more open to that awareness. It’s through feedback or sometimes it’s just through observation. And then there are some people that may never break into that space.

Jacy: I have seen people get to that moment of clarity for various reasons. I think there are techniques for people that are not as skillful at connecting in that emotional way to check in with people so that they aren’t relying on their own judgments and assumptions. I think it can be developed. It goes back to desire.

Brandi: It goes back to willingness. It goes back to being vulnerable.

Aaron: You have to be willing to change. If you are self-aware enough to find a flaw or you’re told what your flaw is, you have to be willing to change that if you want to become a leader or stay a leader. But there still has to be something in you that has to connect and make somebody want to connect with you. I don’t think you can train it from zero.

Jasmine: It’s a combination. You don’t have to be born with it. You don’t have to be really good at it. But if you really want to adjust for things, anyone can break a habit. For the most part, it can be learned if somebody has a true desire and see the benefit to behaving in a different capacity or to changing something about their attitude, even if it’s just in a certain setting.

Aaron: Think about the motivation. Is the motivation to keep your job, to get a raise, to hit a mark, or are you motivated by altruistic things — you just want to be a better person? You would think the latter would drive most, but I’m guessing the former would drive the majority.

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