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This Is the Key to Influencing and Motivating the People Around You, Says Wharton Professor: ‘It's Not Something in Our DNA'

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Were Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg or even Martin Luther King Jr. born great leaders?

The short answer is no, says Michael Useem, a professor emeritus of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and leadership development consultant for a wide array of private, public and nonprofit companies. Useem says the ability to tutor, guide and galvanize the people around you isn't innate — it's something you learn and develop over time.

And there's no one-size-fits-all strategy to acquiring those skills, Useem says: Rather, you need to look at your successes and failures with an "unclenching eye," and use those experiences to identify what you personally need improve on.

"Leadership is not something we're born with, it's not something in our DNA," he tells CNBC Make It. "We learn it. We have to learn to improve and become a great leader."

Useem says he taught that lesson for years at Wharton, drawing on scholarship from other experts and referring to real-world examples. Today, his go-to example is the "humiliating" downfall of Matt Doherty, a former college basketball coach.

At age 37, in the first season of his first head coaching role, Doherty led the University of Notre Dame to the finals of the 1999-2000 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. That success immediately catapulted him to the prestigious role of head coach at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, in 2000.

But then, after just three years, Doherty was "abruptly, unceremoniously" forced to resign, Useem says. This was reportedly due to concerns over his treatment of players: One players' parent told the Greensboro News & Record that Doherty tore down her son's "confidence and self-esteem," while another pointed to verbal abuse during practice.

"From there, he clearly needed to figure out why his leadership of the team backfired," Useem says. "He had to learn."

For Doherty's part, the ex-coach says he viewed himself as a decent leader before coming to UNC, which made him experience an "immediate feeling of failure" after resigning.

"I started to believe some headlines, started to believe that maybe I'm not a good leader," Doherty says. "And back then, I thought maybe that I wasn't born a great leader."

Doherty says he set out on a personal "leadership journey" to understand what went wrong — ending up in one of Useem's leadership classes at Wharton, which is how the duo met.

The revelation that leadership is a trained skill, rather than a given, was "the most exciting thing to learn in my life, at the time," Doherty says. "I was so down and out. I was depressed. I never thought I'd be a good leader until then." 

Doherty says the class taught him he was missing a critical element of leadership: emotional intelligence. He had the hard skills he needed to strategize as a coach, but not a natural ability to make strong emotional connections with his players.

"We talk about core values — mine now are respect, trust, commitment, positivity. But those, I didn't learn and develop until after I went through this leadership journey," says Doherty, who went on to coach at two other schools before becoming associate commissioner of the Atlantic 10 conference. Now, he works off the court as an executive coach helping owners of small to mid-sized businesses.

Doherty says the journey looks different for everyone. While he needed a lesson in emotional intelligence, others may lack entirely different elements of leadership. Useem says that's the crucial takeaway: Whether you're an entry-level employee or CEO, you can't just rely on your so-called natural traits to motivate those around you.

You also need to rely on the lessons you've learned along the way, Useem says: "We have to look at what we've been through — some great successes, others that are terrible disasters — and use that as a source of educational guidance."

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