“It’s pretty dry here. It’s a negative on sightings of wet socks”

What makes a leader? Not ‘wet socks’

Before the US Marine Corp overhauled its basic training, it had a problem. In the words of the man in charge — Commandant Charles C. Krulak, recruits were ‘wet socks’. “Marines can’t be wet socks,” he said.

He meant that recruits had no sense of direction or drive. They couldn’t make decisions themselves and they certainly had trouble stepping up to the role of leader when the situation demanded it. And the situation would certainly demand it.

Imagine you’re a Marine. You’re the first into enemy territory. You’ve been given a clear mission, but the situation on the ground changes. The plan is out the window and you can’t switch on the radio to ask what to do next. What do you do?

If you’re the commanding officer, it’s your job to make those tough decisions. But what happens if you’re not the commanding officer? What if he’s unconscious? Who is going to step up?

This was the type of situation that the Marine’s had to train the recruits to tackle. So, how did they do it? You can read in more depth about how the Marine Corp instilled the motivation to lead in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter, Faster, Better, but I want to just focus on one small, but profound tactic he mentions.

It’s this: the Marine’s NEVER tell someone that they are a “born leader”. That sends the message that you either ‘have it’, or ‘don’t have it’.

It makes people think that leadership ability is preordained and that there’s nothing you can do about it. Which is 100% rubbish, as studies and the experiences of the Marine Corp itself has shown.

Leaders are made. And there’s a massive amount you can do to become a leader or become a better leader.

Reading about this reminded me of an interview I conducted with someone who knows much more than most about leadership — Professor Susan Murphy, Chair in Leadership Development at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

She shared some of the ways you can develop your leadership abilities…

Learn from your experiences

Monitor your own performance to learn from your successes and failures. Experience is crucial. It’s not enough to just learn from books, you’ve got to get out there and “do”, but crucially reflect on your learning experience along the way. Why did you make that decision? Would you do it differently next time?

Have heart

Be passionate and fight for something you believe in. It could be about the right decision for your company or for something your company can do in its way to change the world. You can leave a lasting legacy for the community. That includes securing the future for your company and those who rely on its jobs.

Listen and be alert

Open your ears and listen and learn from other people. Others’ experiences are a rich vein of wisdom, hard won through experience. And be savvy by listening to what is happening in the marketplace — what new trends are emerging in your industry, or what wider issues are facing the world and, by extension, your company? Listen to what is happening in other countries too — they may have the answer to challenges in your back yard.

Connect with people emotionally

Communicate to connect with people on an emotional level, whether that is inspiring them to go along with an issue you are passionate about and turning them into a champion for your cause, or helping them to discover their own passion.

Balance the long term with the here and now

Take the long view while balancing the day to day that is right in front of your eyes. A company’s success is not just down to short-term financial gain, but also long-term sustainability. It’s a question of making a quick buck versus what you went into business in the first place to achieve.

Be prepared to make trade-offs

Be ambidextrous, balancing creative the-sky-is-the-limit thinking with the down-to-earth hard realities. It’s a constant trade-off. Take the movie industry, for example. Making a blockbuster today will underwrite the Oscar-worthy independent film tomorrow.

Change with the times

Be nimble. The world is changing rapidly and you need to find your footing and be able to move in a different direction quickly. Anticipate your next move. The record shop failing to get on the e-commerce bandwagon is just one example.

This post has been adapted from an article which appeared in Insight magazine — a special magazine for students on the Executive Education programme at the University of Edinburgh Business School.