The challenge of free will

How free are leaders to change and adapt to organisations? Pierre Casse and Sergey Gorbatov respond.

What is free will? This question has been around since the beginning of time and we do not claim to provide a clear, straightforward answer to it. However, we would like to highlight some of the leadership implications and challenge you with some contradictory ideas.
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To begin with, we can see three major concerns leaders should have in relation to the question raised:
  • Are leaders pre-determined?
  • Can leaders change?
  • Should leaders address their weaknesses or not?
This article is intended to be controversial in the sense that both writers will present different views in response to these three questions. It is up to the reader to decide which of the two views is more accurate, or alternatively, come up with their own view.
As to leadership itself, our positions are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustible. Paradoxically, both could be appropriate under specific circumstances in the ever changing context of dealing with people. The main objective is to encourage leaders to reflect on the following question: 
How free are leaders, and those people with whom they are working, to change and adjust to organisational expectations?
Are we pre-determined?
Position 1: Despite the fact that scientists from various disciplines disagree, I strongly believe that all human beings are biologically and fundamentally pre-determined. Free will is an illusion that we entertain because it is more comfortable to believe so. 
From a leadership point of view, it implies that a leader should know the basic strengths and weaknesses of the people with whom they are working and assign jobs accordingly. It means that we can all be happy, enjoy life and perform well as long as we experience an alignment between what we are deep down inside ourselves and our work expectations. Our DNA has a very strong impact on what and how we can contribute in our organisations. My research clearly shows that great performers are those people who are able to find, or create, a good match between the requirements of the job and their natural motivations. 
Position 2: The ability to lead others is not part of our DNA but is the result of acquired skills, knowledge and attitudes. Research on the hereditary nature of leadership is scarce and inconclusive. Studies reveal that only 30 per cent of the leadership role occupancy can be attributed to genetic factors.
Once we level out this small impact attributable to DNA, it is the work experience that determines progression to the leadership roles. So we are in charge of our own leadership, and such belief is critical for career success. Carol Dweck calls it ‘growth mindset’. People who believe that they can grow are also better organisational leaders.
Moreover, let us not confuse pre-determinism with pre-disposition. Our free will defines how much time and effort we put into our own development. It does not matter where you start, you can always get better. Compelling purpose, motivation and personal values guide us in a specific direction. They are not in our bloodstream but acquired and learnt. It is our brain that drives our development, not determinism. 
Can we change?
Position 1: Yes we can, because our pre-determination is based on a range within which we can transform ourselves. What this implies is that we can build on our strengths and become more effective at what we do well. To be pre-determined does not mean that we are stuck and cannot develop our capabilities.
The art of being can be described as the process of self-discovery. 
Leaders should reassess their performance appraisal systems because they do not acknowledge the pre-determination factor and they are based on what we want people to be and not on what they actually are. As leaders we should also acknowledge our strengths and surround ourselves with people who are strong where we are weak. We are what we are which is plenty if we are prepared to acknowledge and accept it.
Position 2: Yes, we change all the time, even if we do not recognise it. We form new synapses in our brain on a daily basis with as little as two hours of dedicated learning.  We can change the way we process information, our behaviours and even habits. Any competency can be developed. Organisations must focus on building the skills necessary for business success. Strength-based development is unfounded and can do more harm than good to the organisational performance.
In the leadership context, the primary assumption should be that anyone can change. The role of every leader is to find the right motivation for development to get the best out of people for the greater good of the organisation. Willpower and resilience are the strongest predictors of success of personal transformation.
Should we focus on our weaknesses?
Position 1: Absolutely not and for several reasons. For instance, something which may be considered a weakness today may prove a strength tomorrow. It all depends on the situation with which we are faced. Moreover, it is healthier and much more rewarding to build on what we do well and enjoy doing. To become what we are is the key to real success. 
From a leadership point of view, leaders should give people the opportunity to match their dominant drivers and the job requirements. Give people a chance to do what they are dying to do and the sky is the limit. Great leaders are extremely good at minimising weaknesses and exploiting strengths to the full.
Position 2: Yes! Nobody has ever been fired for their strengths but weaknesses derail even the most successful careers. Your weakness will never be your strength, so spending time on developing it to that end is futile.
But it is critical that you work on the weaknesses that cause ‘noise’. These are your ‘rough edges’ that are visible to others and portray you as a less effective leader. In those cases, you would want to get those weaknesses to the average, tolerable or marginal level. 
As the career progresses, one must let go of the competencies and qualities that have made them successful. As Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here won’t get you there”. Your strength may eventually become your weakness. Focus on learning more about your weaknesses, rather than spending time on trying to ‘fix’ them. Knowing the extent of your incompetence will help avoid potential pitfalls.
Joint conclusions
In summary, leaders should pay more attention to what both they and their team members do well and enjoy doing. Natural talents exist and can be built upon. Weaknesses can also provide opportunities for personal growth. The ability to turn weaknesses into something valuable can prove to be a major leadership strength.
There is much more room for self-development than what most people believe and it is up to the leader to spot and activate potential both within themselves and within those around them. Although nature may have dealt us a hand of cards over which we had no control, it is up to each one of us to decide on how best to play the game. 
We would like to conclude with a request and a promise. Firstly, we request that you take a few moments to reflect upon your own opinion as to the questions raised above. Perhaps, you can offer an alternative perspective. Most importantly, how does your point of view impact your everyday actions, choices and decisions?
Secondly, we promise you greater authenticity. As a leader, having a clear view as to the nature of free will is sure to help you communicate your personal leadership philosophy, make tough decisions and be a better developer of self and others. 
About the author 
Pierre Casse is professor of leadership at Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo and chairman of the Foundation Pierre Casse (Belgium).
Sergey Gorbatov is director general manager development at AbbVie, Madrid.


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