Leadership: DNA Lottery or Lifelong Mission?
CEO | Investor | Entrepreneur
Casey LeBlanc is the CEO of New Venture Escrow. He is a serial entrepreneur that has led several small to medium-sized businesses that have experienced rapid growth and scale. He is also a business development addict that thrives off of innovation and promotes healthy leadership.
I have always had a lifelong curiosity about leadership.
I think it started when I was a young kid. I was always wondering…
“What exactly was the point of me having to listen to these parents of mine? or “What made them think they were the boss/leader of me?”
Yes, they birthed me… that was clearly important. And yes, they provided shelter and food, both of which I was extremely grateful for but c’mon… I was 15, I knew everything and had zero interest in being “led” by these tyrants.
Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the power they yielded and the influence they ultimately had. This interest has only grown over time and led me to reflect on the age-old question, are leaders born or are they bred?
In this article, I’m reflecting on how I’ve come to define leadership on my own unique journey: from what I call a Ph.D. in leadership through football, to having Tuesday talks with my father…. here’s how it happened for me.
The Perennial Question: Are Successful Leaders Born or Bred?
I am particularly interested in this topic because I see a huge void in strong leadership in our society today. It’s just not discussed, trained on, or talked about enough.
Let’s be honest – do you think we are breeding leaders today?
I have some concerns. Too often I see people with an entitled attitude, athletes with too little discipline and a “me first” mindset, and a society that is scared to hold others accountable.
People have varying opinions on whether leadership is something that you are “born with.” Some believe that true leaders naturally carry certain traits: they are born with magnetic charisma and an effortless ability to inspire others with their mere presence.
Some believe that this “special sauce” is similar to innate athletic ability or musical talent.
But I don’t see it like that.
My journey tells a different story. I used to tell myself I was “born to lead”, but I quickly realized that this special sauce was useless if I didn’t learn to lead.
Contrary to Popular Belief, I Believe Leadership is a Skill
Contrary to what most people have told me, I believe that leadership is a skill that is learned.
I have been lucky enough to have been surrounded by great leaders during my career. I played alongside Hall-of-Fame-caliber-athletes and coaches and worked alongside CEO’s that collectively run billion-dollar businesses. On a more personal note, I’ve also grown up alongside a supportive family that stressed leadership to me from a very young age. All leaders of different varieties.
I believe that this leadership journey:
- Begins with our parents and surroundings
- Develops as we are given and decide to take on new opportunities to grow
- …and Matures with self-awareness and productivity
Let’s start with what I see as strong leadership ability because this term means different things to different people.
For me, strong leaders should:
- Create a vision
- Communicate well
- Inspire others
- Have integrity and be honest
- Engage and empower teams of people
- Show creativity and innovation
- Carry a contagious enthusiasm and commitment for all they do
So here is my leadership journey….
Part 1: Leadership Through Parenting – Starting Day 1
We all start our journey in the same place – birth.
We begin learning leadership from day 1, mostly through subconscious observations we make by seeing how our parents raise us. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household that discussed and emphasized this topic regularly.
My father passed almost 4 years ago. Since then, I have spent much time appreciating the guidance I got from him. From a young age, he and I were very close. He was my dad, but he doubled as my coach in just about every sport as I grew up.
I never truly reflected on his coaching until he was gone.
He called me a leader. He said the words often. To this day, I am not sure if he believed it or just wanted it so badly to be true. I distinctly remember listening to countless conversations about what leaders do, how they act, and what he expected of me to eventually be one.
My dad would talk to me a lot. And I only now realize what he was trying to teach me in these conversations.
My Father Taught Me That Leadership is People-Centric
After every game, whether he was coaching or not, our conversations centered around how I competed and what my energy level was. I remember that he would only talk about how I involved others. I always wanted to talk about my personal stats and what I accomplished. He NEVER allowed it.
What was I doing to make the team better?
He would always say to me:
“Son, do you want stats or do you want to win?”
I would sigh and think to myself, “If I get the stats, we are going to win, old man.”
But I see things differently today and how his teachings subconsciously helped me learn about the bigger (leadership) picture.
The same held true as I got older.
As my sports career ended, I immediately found another passion to fuel my competitive spirit… business.
Right after college, I started my own business, and he and I continued our conversations.
The talks with my dad usually occurred on Tuesdays during lunch. On our calls, he would never care about how big my business was or whether or not I was making money.
The only thing he would ask about? The people.
He wanted to make sure I was taking care of the people that worked with me. He wanted to gauge my enthusiasm and effort level for developing those people.
He wanted to see me build new leaders.
I literally never realized this until he was gone, but it is with great joy today that I type these words and appreciate the skills I learned. Again, skills LEARNED.
Bottom line – parents and caretakers and leaders, your kids and employees are looking at you to show leadership in your daily life. They want a model, not a motto. Pour into them and they’ll pour into you.
But you also have your own leadership journey to embark on. Here’s what my journey taught me.
Part 2: Leadership Through Opportunity – Getting a Ph.D. in Leadership through Football
People always ask others where they went to college and what degree they got.
For me, I answer the question with a plain SJSU and Business Management. However, the real answer is I got a Ph.D. in leadership through football. You simply cannot just learn about leadership in a classroom. And what I LEARNED through the challenges of that brutal sport, both about myself and others, has proven to be priceless as my leadership awareness has evolved with age.
I remember a story that made me realize I had a bigger purpose than sports.
Let’s travel back to my sophomore year. We lost the last game of that year. We came into the locker room and our head coach was PISSED. We sucked that year – had all the talent but just never played to our potential.
Have you heard this sad song before? Hmmmmm, maybe a leadership void?
But something happened that day that accelerated my leadership development and I will never forget it.
I was 19 and just starting to come into my own as a college athlete. In a room full of 100 sweaty and defeated young men, the head coach SCREAMED my name. “STAND UP!!!”
He said (and I will never forget the words):
“Casey, we just got our asses kicked (again). I am naming you captain of this football team for next year. You are responsible. This is on you. No more losing, No more losing mentality. Fix this from within.”
In 126 years of football at SJSU, I was 1 of only 9 athletes to bear the formidable C (Captain) on the jersey as both a junior and a senior. I was proud that day to be named Captain. However, I realized that it was just the beginning.
When You Don’t Know Your Next Move, Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
I didn’t know what the f*** to do with this opportunity. I thought I was a born leader? Now I was an anointed captain and had to clue what was next.
So I asked. I set up weekly meetings with the head coach (without anyone knowing because I was embarrassed). I wanted to be trained, to succeed, to learn – to excel.
While the title was bestowed upon me by someone else, it was training and development that was LEARNED that later earn me the title.
If I am being honest, at the time I didn’t fully understand how the hell I was even chosen for the position.
I was not the best athlete, not the most important, and frankly, I thought most of the coaches didn’t even like me because of a somewhat (let’s say) defiant attitude.
But leadership does not come down to just God-given athletic ability. It had nothing to do with any “gifted by birth” mysterious traits. The title Captain was earned because someone had seen me as the type who wanted to lead and would take on the responsibility to learn HOW to lead.
Part 3: Leadership Through Winning – Playing to Win the Game
Lastly, I have always looked up to and admired leaders who perform.
People naturally follow winners. So to learn leadership, it is imperative that you understand what winning looks like for ALL. Define it, and PLAY TO WIN THE GAME.
I have mostly worked for myself so it has been either win or go home.
I knew from a very young age that I was fully capable of the responsibility of winning and losing in business. I wasn’t afraid to wear that accountability on my sleeve. I craved it.
However, when I first started my business I was VERY unclear about the difference between leading and managing. Again, looking back, something that had to be learned.
The Stark Difference Between Management and Leadership
Harvard Business Review compares management and leadership like this:
“Managers embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly—sometimes before they fully understand a problem’s significance. Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully… business leaders have much more in common with artists, scientists, and other creative thinkers than they do with managers.”
Whereas managers focus on meeting structured marks, leaders focus on how they can create value so everyone can win. And while managers manage tasks, leaders manage people.
I was fresh out of college and owned my own business. Now what?
Crisis exposes Leadership (Good and Bad)
Well, for several years I “managed” my way to stay in business. 8 years later, the financial crisis of 2008 hit and I realized that I was not leading and if I didn’t adjust I would manage to be unemployed.
The crisis forced me to be better. Forced me to lead. Forced to win, for everyone.
Business is a team sport. This is when the difference between leadership and management really struck me. When facing issues that can seem insurmountable, you need “the team” to be working together to win.
Moral of the story? A crisis will expose the good and bad leaders. And true and effective leadership is the only answer to survival.
Bottom Line: Strive to Constantly Surround Yourself With Support, Opportunity, and Winners
Bottom line, leadership is learned.
We see and hear leadership throughout our lives and it manifests into how you show up today.
Not all is lost in your surroundings. Leadership begins with your environment, but it is through awareness, learned confidence, and a winning execution that you truly develop this leadership.
We should all focus more on our lifelong journey to positively influence others. Reflect on your past journey, but more importantly, focus on learning specific ways for you to lead others that will be both impactful and inspiring.
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