12 Characteristics of a Natural Leader

Natural Leadership

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We have all used the term “natural born leader” and can recognize one when we see one, but what makes a leader “natural”?  What makes someone a natural leader as opposed to some other sort of leader?

A conventional leader might be described as the head of an organization, the person of authority, the one in control, the top decision-maker, the holder of the carrot and stick, and certainly the one we are supposed to follow.  But we sense that this doesn’t go near far enough to describe a natural leader; in fact, it doesn’t seem to describe a natural leader at all.  So what are the characteristics of a natural leader?  I have been pondering this question a lot lately and, curiously, began to see the answer emerge at my dinner table one night in the form of my youngest child.

Dinner is our time of daily download – what happened to who, what was great that day, what was not.  One evening, as is often the case, Henry told us that got in a bit of trouble at school that day.  And, is as often the case, he explained how unfair it was because everyone else was doing the same thing as him, but only he got in trouble.  You might expect this from a troublesome and less-than truthful child, but Henry is happy, bright, honest, energetic, eager to participate in class, clever, creative, thoughtful, and kind – a really lovely person all around.   We have been concerned because he has had to move many times in his young life, which could explain apparently negative behavior, but each time he has adjusted quickly, easily meeting new friends and usually becoming the center of his social group — not because he’s the biggest or toughest but because he is so upbeat, inclusive, ready for anything, confident yet egalitarian, and happy to learn and share new ideas and skills.   People like him.  More than that, they feel good about themselves when they are with him, when they follow his lead.

That’s when it dawned on me – Henry is a natural leader.  Whatever he does in class, others tend to follow – if he talks or laughs, the whole class starts talking and laughing.  If he tosses a borrowed pencil back to his buddy, pencils start flying all over the room.   Most teachers assume he intentionally instigates disruptive behaviour, when in reality he is simply being himself and doing things that, when done by one person, are not an issue at all but when done by everybody, are highly disruptive.

This little dinner table revelation has led to the following observations on natural leaders, which I encourage you to ponder and let me know what you think.

12 Characteristics of Natural Leaders

  1. A natural leader doesn’t necessarily intend to lead; others simply feel naturally compelled to follow. (Or put another way:  A natural leader doesn’t lead, he or she just is, and others just naturally follow.)
  2. A natural leader is inspired and inspiring, and often inspiring others to, themselves, be inspiring.
  3. A natural leader is the heart, rather than the head, of an organization, radiating both passion and love.
  4. A natural leader encourages rather than directs.
  5. A natural leader enables rather than the controls.
  6. A natural leader holds a deep and dynamic vision, rather than authority.
  7. A natural leader empowers rather than rewards.
  8. A natural leader is not a natural follower.
  9. A natural leader is confident, but not egotistical.
  10. A natural leader doesn’t dwell on problems, but rather is driven towards positive outcomes.
  11. A natural leader is independent and yet inclusive.
  12. A natural leader is a dreamer and a doer.

What do you think?  Does this ring true for you?  If so, can anyone be a natural leader?

I believe that only a lucky few are natural born leaders, but I also believe that anyone can cultivate the characteristics of a natural leader — and many of us should.  For some of us, this will be more of an effort than for others, of course.  Especially because schools tend to reward followers, most governments and cultures expect most of us to be followers (especially girls and women), and capitalism constantly strives to make us followers (of consumer trends).  But I believe that if you want to make change in the world, if you want other people to think and act differently, then you need to be a leader.  And I believe that if you work on becoming a natural leader, you will find that you will have natural followers.

This article originally published on October 2011 on BCI’s Blog. Image courtesy of Flickr CC @R. Alton

Denise DeLuca

Denise DeLuca (PEng, LEED-AP) is co-founder and director of Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is also a consultant for Swedish Biomimetics 3000 and was previously outreach director for the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions. Denise is based in Washington State.