Natural Born Leader

Not every seed will grow into a plant, despite having the richest soil, plenty of sunshine and sufficient water. By the same token, not all people are born to lead. Individuals need the right influence, inspiration, determination and self-discipline to turn themselves into leaders.

Not every seed will grow into a plant, despite having the richest soil, plenty of sunshine and sufficient water. By the same token, not all people are born to lead. Individuals need the right influence, inspiration, determination and self-discipline to turn themselves into leaders.

‘It’s all about tapping into one’s potential,’ says Furnham who is an academic, consultant, raconteur, writer and broadcaster. As a fellow of the British Psychological Society, a professor of psychology at University College London and adjunct professor at the BI Norwegian School of Management, he is also one of the world’s leading psychologists. He has written countless papers and published several books.

His leadership workshops have attracted people from all walks of life ‘ sportsmen, educators, corporate managers and many more from diverse cultural groups. Furnham believes that no matter which ethnic group, race or nationality we may belong to, our needs for friendship, acceptance and motivation remain the same across’the globe.

‘The world is getting smaller each day and although we may be ethnically different, human beings are quite homogenous,’ says Furnham, who teachers over 28 different nationalities in his class in the UK.

His corporate leadership programme called the Developing Leaders Programme has been called a groundbreaking CEO training programme. Furnham discusses his life and work and how he tries to retain old-world values. For example, he does not believe in using a mobile phone and he rides a bicycle to work.

‘My work is pure joy. I feel I have control over who I am through my work. It is both my hobby and my passion; I will never tire of it.’


I think people can be groomed to be leaders but you need an innate ability and concerted effort to reach that position. Neither quality on its own will lead to the same result. I believe in both nature and nurture but I’m sure that the power of nature is primarily influential during a person’s childhood years.

I have learnt through experience that people need to be taught or trained to be managers. Management is a skill: some pick it up more easily than others, but everyone can learn to be better at it.

I have come to realise that people do not change much over time. For an adult in their mid to late twenties, what you see, is what you get. People can – and do – change as a result of trauma, therapy and necessity, but it is neither common nor easy. Change is difficult, resisted and unnatural. Drive and determination is quite important to accept change.

I think happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved consciously. I believe that job satisfaction and life satisfaction are directly correlated because happiness is largely dispositional and not exclusively a function of the environment. Content people tend to be happy with their lot at home and at work.

I am happy to be a workaholic because I think work is fun. I believe Freud was right when he said the most important things in life are liebe und arbeit (love and work). They are the source of the greatest satisfaction and potentially, frustration. That is why having a fulfilling job and a healthy job environment is so important. I believe most people enjoy and benefit from their work. Work has powerful psychological functions: it provides a source of identity, time structure, social support, money and status and offers an outlet for people’s hopes, joys and gifts. I have my wife, Alison’s permission to work from 5am until 12am on the weekends, meaning that I work seven days a week, 365 days a year.

I like to do things my way. I do not carry a mobile phone because I do not want to be enslaved by modern technology. I love riding my bicycle to work. Nothing stops me – not even the snow. It’s fast, cheap and healthy.

I am sceptical about many things. I believe scepticism and doubt are healthy attitudes. Cynicism wrinkles the soul but scepticism is a healthy critical attitude that I advise my students to adopt. It is good to question things.

I can get sentimental about many things: lost opportunities, old times, lost faith and the memory of a safer, more stable, more polite world.

I perceive confidence as a realistic appraisal of one’s ability and determination. It’s sad to see those who are able but who don’t believe in themselves and shocking to see the less able who have narcissistic self-belief.

I consider fear to be a healthy, adaptive reaction to dangerous situations. I detest rudeness, selfishness and blind ideologies.

I wish I were younger; life is so short and there is so much to do.

I think all meetings should have an agreed upon, pre-planned agenda and a set time frame. I think that they should always be conducted standing up.

I have through my experience learned that leadership is all about selecting, motivating and directing teams to achieve mutual business goals. Each one of us has a particular gift. We must explore and exploit this gift for our team’s benefit. People are more alike than different. Managers have a key role to play, as does the organisation as a whole in the sense that it provides the funds and time necessary to facilitate growth.

We are products of our past and not victims of it. Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you are right. We truly are captains of our ship and masters of our fate.

I feel people must not overreact to work- related troubles because politics at work are inevitable. Gossip, power struggles and intrigue are part of the human condition. I acknowledge that people are social animals and that other people at work are a major source of both pain and pleasure.

I am passionate about my work and my family and know that kindness is reciprocated. The only real legacy you leave is how you have touched other people.


Me and the need for leaders

Leadership is about performing specific roles and tasks; it never has to do with individuals alone. Leaders are invested with power and charged to do a job. Their success lies in their ability to understand the issues at hand and the people that they deal with. They need to motivate others to achieve ‘Smart’ objectives. We often ask too much of our leaders and choose those who are doomed to fail.

Me and my insight into human behaviour

We are biopsychosocial creatures. We are affected by what we have inherited – be it physical looks or particular abilities. Moreover, our personality and values shape how’other people treat us and how we treat them. We are born, we live and we retire in organisations that have a profound influence on us. Leaders shape the groups that they lead, but are in turn shaped by those groups too. To some extent, leaders are born, but they are also made.

Me and charisma

It certainly exists and it is difficult to cultivate. It is a great gift but it can be easily abused. When you meet people who have it, you certainly see its power.

Me and the five must-haves for leadership Ability (intelligence), emotional stability, conscientiousness, emotional intelligence and drive.

Me and communication

The power to inspire people at work is a great gift. Great orators can and do change the world. They can speak simple and fundamental truths for all people and for all time. But it is not enough to simply convey a vision; you have to make tough decisions and get things done to realise that vision.

Me and fun

I enjoy spending time with my PhD students: young, clever, forward-thinking, optimistic students. I have about 28 nationalities in my class and all of them are very bright. When I go out with them (as is the norm at least once every weekend), I am the only

56-year-old among all the 28 year olds.

I feel so energised in their company – so much so that when someone asks me how old I am, I always tell them I’m 28.

Me and mediocrity

I have come across many organisations stagnating in mediocrity. What people forget is that success can breed complacency. Organisations can be successful for lots of reasons: they have a monopoly, or a brilliant USP (unique selling point). They forget to innovate and rejuvenate. They rely too much on reputations. You are only as good as your last performance. The world is changing fast and there are more and more competitors; no organisation can afford to relax. We need to re-invent ourselves, to examine what we do and who we are. The Japanese call it the Kaizen principle (meaning a change for the better, which in Japanese management strategy means room for continuous improvement).

Me and my family

I am an only child with one son of my own. I love my small family, my work and my close friends – in that order. My wife Alison and I were students of psychology together at Oxford University. I have a 12-year-old son, Benedict (which means ‘a blessing’).

I have come to believe that having a child is the only important thing one does in life. Both Alison and I dote on Benedict. I would like to see my son grow up to be a strong, healthy and happy man. I have dedicated 15 books to him. Despite my busy schedule,’we take four holidays (all short ones in England) a year. They are everything’to me: I am blessed.

Me and travel

I love to travel, particularly to lesser-known parts of the world where life stands still. Last year, I visited 16 countries on four continents.

Me and sport

I’m neither much of a participant or an observer. However, the values sport teaches – teamwork, self-discipline, diligence, fair play, competitiveness – are very relevant to business.


What are your impressions of the corporate world and how do you think its faults might be remedied?

Oddly, many companies spend their time and money unwisely. They are often naive about what can be achieved through training alone. We know why training does and does not work. We also know when and why it does not transfer from the classroom to the boardroom effectively. There are some simple but important principles to consider: participation, practice, repetition, feedback, spacing training over time, homework exercises and so on. Some people are more trainable than others. Some organisations see training as a reward and others as a punishment. No amount of training can turn people of limited ability into effective leaders.

Is it possible to get an individual to rise above his limitations and take on a role he would not normally be able to do?

Yes. The joke goes: ‘How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?’ The answer is one, but the light bulb needs to want to be changed! You can’t train ability and you need to be bright enough to be a good leader. People also need to be tough and resilient in the face of stress and this is difficult. Sometimes, what holds leaders back is their lack of belief in their ability. I have also seen too many cases of leaders overestimating themselves. Start by understanding yourself and what you need to work on and why.

Do you think culture impacts leadership?

I think the world is shrinking because of travel, technology and education. My students may look different and many speak with noticeable accents, but I am impressed with how similar their values, world views and hopes are. I believe that there are biologically based differences that affect how, when, why and where people work. I think it is as unwise to deny these differences as it is to exaggerate them. I also think that there are systematic cultural differences between people as a function of where and when they grew up. However, we all live in a networked, global economy. Most companies are multinational – indeed global – today. Senior managers travel a great deal. They have to be multilingual and adaptable in the way that they lead. The more I travel, the more I see similarities between people. I believe the essence of good leadership is the same in all cultures.

What has your experience been as a business speaker at various corporate conferences?

I do speak a great deal. My experience is that people appreciate networking opportunities. Many value the fame of the speaker when they are well past their sell-buy date. My philosophy is simple: what are people going to remember three weeks later? Answer: not a lot unless you send them away with some simple but powerful ideas and tools, as well as some way of taking things further. They need that more than entertainment and dry facts. They are excited by anything that is counterintuitive. I believe people need to apply good theories. Kurt Levine said: ‘There is nothing as practical as good theory.’

What are your favourite quotes?

‘People should know what you stand for and what you won’t stand for.’

‘If you lead wisely you will obeyed cheerfully.’

‘The rot starts at the top.’

‘Isolation deprives leaders of a good idea.’