Talent Alone Does Not Make a Leader

Talent and leadership are separate attributes, but people too often regard them as one and the same. Talent is what you do well. Leadership is your ability to bring others to common cause.

ESPN sports-talk host Colin Cowherd talked about the subject on a recent show. He made the point with two names: Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Of the two, Rodriguez is the better player. Jeter is the more respected one. Jeter is the Yankee captain; Rodriguez is barely tolerated by his teammates.

Anyone in a position to hire should heed the difference. Hiring managers promote or recruit people for their ability to produce results. That's good hiring. But they need to carefully evaluate candidates' leadership abilities.

For example, super sales pros make ideal solo performers but not always team players. A leader has to understand the nature of team and be willing to step forward to pull people together for common purpose. Team members, on the other hand, motivate themselves with the goal of individual achievement.

When considering a star for promotion, ask three questions:

How does the candidate measure success? Individual contributors view success as something they have earned by themselves. Leaders regard success as something achieved by working through others. Make no mistake: Individual success is a cornerstone of organizational success. Leaders take pride in their personal contributions—but they must concentrate on getting others to produce, too.

How can this person make others better? Solo performers focus on what they do. Leaders focus on helping the team succeed. Companies need stars to produce and thereby enable organizational success. Companies also need leaders who can engage the talents of many to achieve intended results. Good leaders also work with individuals to draw out their talents through coaching, so that they grow and develop their skills.

How has he or she earned others' respect? Organizations hold star performers in high regard but if you want to know how people feel about them, you need to ask their co-workers. Solo stars work for personal glory. Team leaders put team first. This is not to say that leaders are altruists; they enjoy the fruits of their success. As leaders, however, they make sure to accept responsibility for the team's good and bad results.

This is not to say that individual contributors cannot be leaders. Leadership calls for people who take initiative and have a willingness to make things happen—those who demonstrate a sense of autonomy and initiative and take responsibility for their actions. Not everyone who excels individually wants to lead or manage others.

Most organizations push people into management as a means of recognizing achievement and increasing compensation levels. That is not sufficient. Your leaders need the ability to step back from the action in order to let others do their jobs.

Legendary football coach Bear Bryant once said this about coaching: "You must learn how to hold a team together. You must lift some men up, calm others down, until finally they've got one heartbeat. Then you've got yourself a team." The same would apply to successful leadership.

A leader's true talent lies in helping others achieve more than what they might have on their own. This is a leader's reward. It is not a reward that everyone seeks—or can deliver.

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