Leaders Aren’t Born, They’re Made: Leadership as an Acquired Skill

Legendary hotelier and founding president of Ritz-Carlton, Horst Schulze, shares four key principles that can help leaders bring their vision to fruition in 2023.

The age-old adage says you either have it or you don’t. But is that really true? Countless times I have heard people talk about world leaders, elite athletes, and successful entrepreneurs with the general sentiment that they were simply “born that way,” blessed with certain DNA, innate talent, and bold personality traits that allowed them to rise to the top with little effort.

As someone who showed little aptitude for leadership in my early life, I disagree with this school of thought. I’ve found that leaders run the gamut. They’re not always the loudest or most charming person in the room. Oftentimes the best leaders are quiet, steady people who learned how to successfully take charge.

You may be asking yourself how the more meek among us can rise to the top. The start is simple. First lead yourself before trying to lead others. Focus on the future. Set worthy objectives that are good for all concerned. Next, determine how to communicate this to your team and stakeholders. The key here is discipline—not just “hoping” for things to work out, but keeping your vision clear and diligently following the steps to see it through.

There are four key principles that helped bring my vision to fruition. 

1. Strive to Inspire, Rather Than Dictate

Micromanaging is not an effective way to build a healthy team. You want your organization to be full of energy and momentum. The way to accomplish this is by inspiring a culture of trust, and inspiring your employees to become part of something bigger than their day-to-day tasks.

Don’t watch out for your team’s next mistake, instead encourage them to join in pursuing your vision.

2. Don’t Settle for Less

While it’s important to foster an environment of trust and positive encouragement, it is equally important to not settle for less than the vision you have laid out. Don’t settle for excuses from your team, and don’t settle for the excuses you make for yourself!

3. Let Nothing Cloud Your Vision

As a company grows, by adding team members, departments, policies, and general complexity, so does the difficulty in maintaining the vision. Rather than focusing on staying creative and nimble, organizations so easily can become bureaucracies that neglect original visions. As you grow, stay steadfast.

4. Always Look to Improve

“We’ve just never done it that way before.” This statement has no place in a healthy organization. In fact, even if your team does something particularly well, you should still meet and ask yourselves how you could have done it better. This exercise will ensure you stay ahead of the curve. I recommend that you incorporate this exercise into all aspects of your life as well.

Now, are you reading this and wondering whether you are a good leader, or if you are even a leader in general? First, it’s important that we differentiate leading a team from simply managing a team.

A leader has a specific destination in sight. They take their organization with them on a journey to reach that destination. They foster an environment where people want to do the things needed to reach the destination. They inspire the team to become part of something bigger.

Managers, on the other hand, focus on managing processes and forcing things to happen. They reprimand and micromanage.

There was a point in my career when I was responsible for 65 hotels. As I was reviewing each of the properties, I came to the stark conclusion that I had just five leaders, but 60 managers on my hands. Their position was made clear when I asked each of the individuals where they saw their hotel a year from now.

If they gave me excuses, I couldn’t consider them a leader. You could not imagine the excuses I heard!

“If we only had a bigger ballroom to hold more tables ….”

“Well, if we could do a remodel of the lobby.”

“If we just had a better labor pool to draw from.”

“I expect we will be a strong average.” (By the way, never aim to be average. Average is the bottom of “good” and the top of “bad.”)

The other five who stood out as leaders gave answers along the lines of: “We will be the best and most loved hotel in the community in a year!” They had a vision, and they had the drive to lead themselves and their team to make it happen.

As I stated at the beginning, not all leaders are natural, born leaders. Just because your parents, teachers, or coaches didn’t recognize you as a leader when you were young, doesn’t mean that you can’t set your mind to make the crucial decisions above. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

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