by Steve Adubato, PhD

I was talking recently to my friend Patrick Dunican about the subject of leadership, and whether you can teach or coach certain critical aspects of leadership, including the ability to be compassionate and caring. Patrick is the Chairman and Managing Director at Gibbons P.C., a Newark-based law firm that has underwritten public television programming that I have produced and hosted.

Patrick and I also explored the perplexing and persistent problem of professionals who just don’t seem to understand the need to follow up and follow through with important clients, customers and stakeholders.

In the field of leadership development, we conduct seminars and executive coaching in an effort to teach people what it takes to lead and manage others. However, the question remains, how much of the leadership equation, particularly when it comes to so-called “soft skills”, is trainable versus how much is innate?

I’ve lost count of the number of professionals who take seminar after seminar and read virtually every book on leadership and communication who still don’t seem to get it. They make the same mistakes over and over. They also think that caring and compassion are optional and unfortunately communicate that message to those around them. The results aren’t pretty.

According to Patrick Dunican; “I think the ability to be truly compassionate and caring is innate and is then shaped and honed by an individual's life experiences before that individual assumes a leadership position. If a leader has that gift, he/she will be more effective than one who does not possess that visceral ability.”

Dunican has it right. It’s like playing baseball, football or most sports. Some athletes are born with innate ability and a skill set that dwarfs those around them. However, that doesn’t guarantee that they are going to be the most successful performer on the field. Conversely, we see athletes who have some athletic ability who then make the commitment to work harder than others and respond to the coaching, training and teaching of those who know best. When you put that combination together, you produce the “Derek Jeters” of the world.

The same thing is true about leadership. Some people are “born leaders”, but that is no guarantee that they will ultimately succeed in organizational life. Others are born with limited innate leadership ability; however, it is that same professional who then decides that he or she wants to grow and develop further that ultimately succeeds. We are talking about people who are open to feedback and criticism and who set clear goals as to what exactly they want to improve.

But even if a good part of the leadership equation can be taught, I’ve always felt that the ability to empathize with others is something either you have or you don’t. Yet, in my conversation with Patrick Dunican, he offered a different perspective; “A good leader, even if not innately compassionate, must possess empathy, which is a skill that can be learned and, indeed, must be learned for that leader to thrive and excel.”

So there you have it. The leadership equation is definitely not a science. It’s an art form or complex craft that doesn’t conform to any cookie-cutter philosophy or approach. But here’s the bottom line. To ultimately succeed as a leader, you must possess a degree of self awareness, or a desire to become more self aware, that causes you to ask the tough questions about yourself and your performance. Without that, all of the coaching and training in the world only goes so far.