The origins of greatness

The origins of greatness

Two weeks ago, I wrote of recent findings that are causing most experts to modify their views about the origins of genius. In essence, the latest studies are showing that most of the amazing accomplishments we attribute to some mysterious natural talent are in fact far more acquired abilities than inborn qualities.

Not surprisingly, my interest in this subject began with the classic question, “Are leaders born or made?” My curiosity then extended to extraordinary talent in any field. For example, if we consider the case of Mozart, or Einstein, or Tiger Woods, or Steve Jobs, or any performer whose “natural” talent we marvel at, what part of their genius can we attribute to a gift of birth, and what part of it was acquired?

It turns out that for exceptional leadership skills, or brilliance in any field, we can now say that it is the product of a progression toward mastery rather than the result of a natural born gift.

A great speaker: born or made? It is striking to me that much of society continues to believe that some individuals are simply gifted communicators.  In my work and my teaching, I often hear observations such as: “I have never been very good at expressing my thoughts in public”, or “Isn’t she fortunate to have such a gift for communication!”  Interestingly, my experience and research have led me to the opposite conclusion—that there are no born communicators. 

Certainly, some human beings have more innate talent for self-expression than others. On the other hand, learning to speak effectively and with confidence is a type of learning that follows a common pattern. In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly, and then they stop developing completely. Yet a few manage to keep improving for years and even decades, and some go on to greatness.

As such, it would be interesting to discover why a small number of people learning any skill do keep learning and progressing, when most reach a “plateau” and stay there. And, in fact, a pattern does emerge. When one studies the lives of those we tend to think of as “natural” communicators—the Martin Luther Kings or Margaret Thatchers—one finds that these individuals have practiced, and practiced a lot.  Their voices, and their self-confidence, emerge and develop as they repeat their stories and their speeches, over and over.

The case of Churchill: Perhaps the most striking example of a communicator who worked tirelessly at his craft was the great wartime leader and outstanding orator Winston Churchill. It is often said that Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”. What is less understood is that he spent countless hours planning and writing his verbal communication, weighing not only his words but also the pauses, rhythm and cadence that would produce his desired dramatic effect.  Daun Van Ee, co-author of Churchill and the Great Republic, and an authority on the Prime Minister’s speaking technique, explains that Churchill was in fact a master of a technique I call “writing as spoken”, a method I often use with my clients when they are training to make presentations. In many cases, I have found that the simple act of putting the words of a presentation on a piece of paper, and then imagining the flow of the speech, is indeed a valuable exercise that can help an individual develop self-confidence.

The master orator Churchill pushed this concept even further. All of his speeches were constructed and put to paper in what he called “psalm form”, like the famous Biblical prayers, an almost poetic style. In this way he could get the right emphasis and he could pause at the places where he wanted to pause. He could have exactly the kind of rhythm and the cadence that he wanted. Churchill visualized the tempo of each speech as he practiced it aloud; he understood that the energy of the delivery is as important as the message itself.

As I often articulate to a variety of audiences, leadership communication is simply hard work. If it were easy, we would all be dazzling presenters, orators, and leaders.  Those who do become great communicators have worked at it, and indeed worked at it extremely hard.

Churchill, considered by many to be one the greatest speakers of modern times, prepared compulsively, crafting sentences and repeating them over and over. He would think out every sentence very carefully and then rehearse it over and over.

Next week, we will see that Churchill’s path is not a unique one. The road to greatness in many fields follows a similar pattern.



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