About a hundred years ago, I was interviewed for a Deputy Director position for a young offender facility in Alberta. In that interview, the then Assistant Deputy Minister of Corrections asked me one of those questions that at the time I dreaded and had not prepared for (which is likely why I dreaded it): Are Leaders Born or Made? I was a twenty-something then, before that term was even invented. I needed a minute to think. It was a philosophical question and I wondered if he wanted to know what I thought or if he’d already made up his mind not to give me the job and was toying with me, extending the interview for a few more minutes so I wouldn’t figure out he’d already made up his mind. I scanned his face and that of the Director of the facility who sat beside him, the man who would be my ultimate boss. They looked at me, then each other, one winked, the other smiled in that way teenagers in cliques do as if to say, I know something you don’t know.

When I finally offered a reply, I said that it was a little of both. We are born with certain traits, including in some people the need to lead (or perhaps control) that are further honed through the experiences we have (good and bad) and the people we meet (also good and bad). They argued my points and I gave further examples of what I meant. I lost track of time and the fact that this was an interview. It felt more like good old-fashioned honest debate.  In the end, we agreed to disagree. They thanked me, said something about me being political and that I had a long career ahead of me in the public service.  I guess that was meant to reassure me.

It didn’t. I took offence to being described as ‘’political”. There are many definitions of the word, but the one I use when I’m disgusted with a leader, an organization, or a politician is: “Intrigue or manoeuvring within a political unit or group in order to gain control or power. For example, partisan politics is often an obstruction to good government.” In other words, saying or doing what you think people want to hear to get a vote or a job or some business.

I wasn’t manoeuvring anyone in that interview. Except, now as I write this, I did take a minute or so to think about it before I answered the question and, if I’m honest with myself today (which I probably couldn’t be then), of all the thoughts I had in that long minute of silence, the one that buzzed like a bee close to my ear was: I wonder what they want to hear. Perhaps the answer I first gave had twinges of fence sitting. No, that’s not right. I was definitely hedging in my first response. No doubt about it. The true answer came out through the debate I had with these two men, when I lost sense of time and place and just focused on what I knew to be true for me. It’s also what I believe to be true today.  So if I were to answer that question today, I’d say leaders are born, then bred and exceptional leaders are born, then use their experiences good and bad to bring compassion, understanding and commitment to the people they lead. Like any relationship, leaders bring out the best in the people they work with and serve. They are not in it for the power and don’t seek out leadership roles for the prestige it gives, but instead, for how they might serve. They understand the ramifications of every decision they make and know that behind every decision made there’s a person who will be impacted.  There is no ego in exceptional leaders.

I’m a writer now (yet another career change) and while I love it, the one thing I miss more than anything is the chance to lead, to work with others, to serve. I suppose that is why I also organise the Writers Festival in Whistler and mentor MBA students and young, new leaders. It gives me the opportunity to impart the lessons I’ve learned along the way and to give others the hand up and support I was so fortunate to receive (some will say it allows me to feed my need to control. But, I haven’t bought into that theory). 

By the way, I never did get that job. It was devastating at the time, but really it was the best thing that happened to me. As I’ve said many times to the students I’ve mentored as they were preparing for interviews, don’t tell them what you think they want to hear, sell them on you and what you can offer. Interview the interviewers as much as possible and make sure there’s a good fit. And if it works out, great. If not, other opportunities will come. I can say this now, at 56, soon to be 57. Not sure how many believe me on this, but some smile those smiles as if to say, “whatever”.  


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