Can you learn to be a great leader?

Published: 31 August 2023

As CEO of Les Roches one of the foremost names in hospitality business education Carlos Díez de la Lastra has first-hand experience in senior leadership. He’s also overseeing the rollout of executive education programs that aim to answer the eternal question: Are great leaders born or made?

Here’s a little exercise for you, before you delve into this article. Think of your favorite boss; the person you got the most out of working under. Then consider what it was – or is – that made this person stand out. Were they the most fun? Did you learn the most? Was it simply that they gave you confidence to perform? Or a combination of these and other factors?

What connects all these attributes is that they are soft skills, not technical competencies. I would add that the latter, while important, do tend to come as standard with the territory. As a leader myself, I know that the journey to the CEO’s office is an incremental process. During this journey, we steadily acquire the technical and business knowledge that enables us to keep across things as an MD or CEO, while relying on our departmental managers to actually run the various functions on a day-to-day basis.

So far so good. But on our upward journey to leadership, where do we learn the essential soft skills? Who is there to teach us how to become a great leader? For me, this is why we still have a debate about whether great leaders are born or made.

There are those among us for whom leadership comes naturally. We’ve all worked with them or for them; individuals with such easy charisma and human empathy that you’d follow them anywhere. Those lucky few! On the other side of the coin, there are the deep introverts for whom the very idea of leadership is anathema. That’s fine too – very often these same traits allow them to deliver exceptional performance as technical specialists.

For everyone in between, the soft skills that define great leadership must be learned; and that means going ‘back to school’.

At Les Roches, we are lucky to have several faculty who’ve devoted their professional lives to studying and teaching leadership. Among them is Professor Annick Darioly Carroz, who completed her Ph.D. in Work and Organizational Psychology at Switzerland’s University of Neuchâtel before becoming a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the prestigious Kravis Leadership Institute in Los Angeles, USA.

Annick teaches leadership to students of both our flagship on-campus MBA in Global Hospitality Management and its executive version, which is delivered via online modules.

The latter program, which we launched in 2022, taps into a growing demand for specialized executive education featuring flexible study that can be undertaken without interrupting one’s career. Though delivered remotely, such programs are far more interactive and engaging than they were in the early days of online learning, benefiting from an explosion in new technologies and applications which was accelerated by the necessity to continue teaching during the COVID lockdowns.

Interestingly, in her leadership classes, Annick always asks her students the same question I did at the start of this article: Who is your favorite leader, and why? It won’t surprise you to learn that the answers she receives invariably revolve around soft skills.

It’s a notion that’s backed by a large volume of academic research, including that conducted by Annick herself. She notes: “We all come back to the same result, which is that if you want to be an effective leader it’s not about hard skills, it’s about being socially and emotionally competent. Because the higher you climb up the hierarchical ladder, the more you need to be emotionally aware, and the less hinges on your technical competency”.

The leadership learning basics

So, if you want to learn to be a great leader, what are the things you need to know? My colleague Annick highlights three key areas, all of which she teaches in class:

  • Knowing yourself – focused on leadership styles and ethical factors; as well as the personality traits needed to be a successful leader in hospitality, plus effective verbal and non-verbal communication.

  • Knowing the context – in particular, situational leadership and the ‘triangle’ between the leader, the follower, and the situation; in particular, how the relationship between leader and follower can sometimes make a situation toxic.

  • Knowing your team – how a leader provides motivation and deals with diversity, as well as techniques for leaders to build greater engagement and commitment within their teams.

    What connects all three of these areas is self-awareness. While it’s not possible to teach self-awareness as a purely academic subject, students can be pushed to become more self-aware through carefully selected case studies and assignments, as well as through being given opportunities to reflect on their prior professional experiences – how they led others and were themselves led.

At the end of the day, good leadership is all about communication. How to give constructive feedback, how to be an active listener, to understand non-verbal behavior. And the enabler for this is developing the self-awareness to reflect and the willingness to learn from that reflection.

This relentless focus on both soft and hard skills is what has made our MBA so successful across almost two decades, and it’s why faculty like Annick regularly get emails from graduates explaining how what they learned in class has been useful in their professional lives.