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Can leadership be learned? Wharton School professor weighs in at BII

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Are some people simply born to lead or can leadership be learned?

The answer lies somewhere in between believes Dr Mario Moussa, who has 20 years of experience working in the field of leadership development.

A key to finding your leadership potential is firstly having the ability to understand yourself and then having the skill to know what is important to the people in the situation where you are trying to lead, he said.

It is also about being able to assess what you have done, and what you could have done better. Illustrating the point, Dr Moussa mentions one of the leaders he most admires, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt.

“He is so reflective about his leadership and he has very simple practical ideas about leadership. He talks about leadership as an intense journey into yourself. He says if you understand yourself you can do almost anything with other people,” said Dr Moussa.

“He has a really simple question that he asks himself every day, and that is: ‘What are three things that I did yesterday that I could have done better?’ That is a question that anyone can ask themselves.”

This week around 25 insurance industry executives are learning about leadership from Dr Moussa, who is lead tutor on a development programme created in partnership by Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the Bermuda Insurance Institute.

“It’s an opportunity to take an intense journey into yourself as a leader. It’s about business topics and leadership topics,” he explained.

In 2007, Dr Moussa co-authored the book ‘The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuassion to Sell Your Ideas’, which focused on influencing, persuading and negotiating with colleagues, family and others.

“Influence and persuasion are important to leadership because you can’t simply tell people what to do, you have to engage them and inspire them,” he said.

“Leadership is about what works in a particular situation. A lot depends on who you are and who you are trying to lead. One myth is that leaders have to be strong and overpowering like a military leader, but the evidence is that leadership is about engagement, inspiration, motivation. So the key question is ‘what will inspire, engage and motive in a particular situation?’”

And there’s no cookie cutter uniformity about successful leaders. “There are various typologies. Some leaders are introverted, some are extroverted, some focus on themselves some focus on others, some are very high energy and inspirational some are more subdued,” explained Dr Moussa. “But whatever a leader’s style is, he or she is able to connect with people in a situation. Effective leaders are able to work with their different styles. What is important is understanding your style and how you may need to adapt it in a particular situation.”

Apart from the aforementioned Mr Immelt, other leaders Dr Moussa admires include the late Apple boss Steve Jobs for his “ability to communicate a message with passion and simply”, and wartime leader Winston Churchill for his ability to “articulate a vision and inspire people to move towards to move towards that vision during difficult times”.

Participants on this week’s course will study and gain an understanding of their own thinking style, whether it is predominantly analytic, emotional or relational. They will also look at innovation, strategy and finance.

Describing the course as “intensive and interactive”, Dr Moussa said: “The experience is designed to teach leaders specific acumen like finance and innovation but also participants an opportunity to step back and reflect on how they lead others and what’s next for them in their careers.”

Axis Capital chairman Michael Butt and former XL CEO Brian O’Hara offered their insights in a pre-course discussion with participants, and addressed the question of whether leaders are born or made.

“They said it’s a bit of both and I would agree. We all have our natural abilities, but also there are specific skills that can be taught connecting with people, decision-making. Leadership is a mix of natural abilities and then your commitment to a cause or a mission or a strategy,” said Dr Moussa.

There is also a teamwork aspect to the leadership programme, which will see participants working together on a project to be continued in the second and final week of the programme in May.

The projects will give participants the opportunity to work and apply topics and ideas they have learned from the programme.

“You can think of them as learning laboratories,” said Dr Moussa. Asked how a company would benefit from putting an executive through the programme, he said: “It gives the participants education in the area of basic business acumen skills, it also helps make them better leaders through better understanding themselves, giving them tools for understanding each other, thirdly, and in some ways the most important part, it gives them the opportunity to network with others in the programme and other leaders in the community they are exposed to, such as Michael [Butt] and Brian [O’Hara].

“At the end of the programme they come out with an enhanced set of business skills, a better understanding of themselves as leaders and leadership skill and connections in their community.”

Useful website: www.bii.bm

Teaching leadership: Dr Mario Moussa is lead tutor for a leadership programme for executives in Bermuda. The programme is a joint imitative between Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the Bermuda Insurance Institute.
Teaching leadership: Dr Mario Moussa is lead tutor for a leadership programme for executives in Bermuda. The programme is a joint imitative between Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the Bermuda Insurance Institute.
Teaching leadership: Dr Mario Moussa is lead tutor for a leadership programme for executives in Bermuda. The programme is a joint imitative between Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the Bermuda Insurance Institute.

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Published February 28, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated February 27, 2013 at 6:03 pm)

Can leadership be learned? Wharton School professor weighs in at BII

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