Great leaders aren’t born, they are made, says Stephen Duncanson, president of True Destiny Communications in New York. And if his life is any indication, he’s right. “The reality is, everyone goes through the process of becoming a good leader.
Whether it was from his family, mentors, or career experience, Duncanson has built a lifetime of on-the-job leadership training. His career began right out of college, when he became a New York City police officer. After retiring, he went to work for advisors, authors and businessmen Warren Bennis and John Maxwell.
But the seeds of leadership were planted long before college and a professional career. It was living with his mother and father that set him on the path to success.
“My mom was a great homemaker, a steady person, and she showed people what a good woman was supposed to be,” he says. “Certainly, my dad was the head of my home, but he realized that with his ability to do what he did he needed someone else. My mother was the nurturer.”
Duncanson will share his experiences during the SkillPath “Leadership Development and Teambuilding Conference” on Thursday, July 8, at 9 a.m. at the Holiday Inn. Cost: $199. Visit www.skillpath.com to register.
“Character is the most important part of leadership. No matter what it is we say, character has proven itself to be key,” he says. “It’s the difference maker. If people can’t buy into you, then you can’t be a leader.”
Looking for leaders. The consensus today, says Duncanson, is that leaders are made through the development of certain trainable traits.
“It’s not going to happen by accident,” he says. “It happens through development, through study and research. Up to the age of 30, when I met [motivational speaker] John Maxwell, I don’t think I’d ever read any books all the way through, even in college. Up to that point I wasn’t concerned with learning, I was concerned with getting a degree. But I became a voracious reader, especially on leadership and personal development.”
Among those books was “Leadership Challenge,” by M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. In it, several thousand people throughout the world were asked what people are looking for in a leader. Four main traits came out of it — being a forward thinker, being inspiring, being honest, and being competent. These are all skills that can be learned, he says.
Leading and managing. Leadership, says Duncanson, is more than just managers managing and businessmen making decisions. It is often an intangible quality that only a few people possess.
“Warren Bennis [author of several business leadership books] captured it best — efficient management without effective leadership is like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” he says. “In or out of the workplace, being a leader means having the ability to take people in a specific and predetermined direction.”
Unfortunately, being a good manager and being a good leader are not synonymous, and developing that quality is something more and more businessmen are recognizing as a key to success because in the end, he says. “While managers may do the things right, it is leaders who do the right thing. “
“When all is said and done, here is what we know. People don’t want to be managed, they want to be led,” Duncason says. “If I am the leader of an organization, I realize I have to surround myself with good leaders as well as good managers. If they can be both, that’s great, but if I had to choose one, give me leaders.”
On the homefront. To this day, Duncanson still looks at his mother as a confidant and as a role model. As a child she studied business administration and the Bible. Recently, she became the oldest graduate in her class at Nyack College, where she earned a general studies degree. In that respect, Duncanson says he is a lot like his mother. He embraces the concept of lifelong learning and seeks ways to improve himself and what he does.
“To this day, she is also not just my mom, she’s my friend and my confidant,” he says. “If I’m learning something new and want to share it with someone, I call my mom.”
Duncanson’s father was an accountant and, later an insurance salesmen. But he also had an entrepreneurial streak in him, owning a cookie factory and an ice cream shop in New York for a while.
Even though he died when Duncanson was 25, the lessons he took from his father — in particular that entrepreneurial spirit — have lasted a lifetime.
“My father laid the foundation in character and leadership and in being consistent to who and what you are,” he says.
Duncanson graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice with a degree in police science before joining the NYPD. During his time there, he worked his way up to sergeant, and from the precinct level to investigating organized crime, specifically narcotics in Manhattan, Harlem, and the Upper East and West sides for nine years.
“I don’t ever remember not wanting to be a cop,” he says. “Through high school and elementary school I’d planned to be a police officer. It was just something that was in me, so at the earliest opportunity after college that’s what I did and I went full steam ahead from there.”
While with the force, Duncanson began to see a pattern. He was locking up the same people over and over again. Soon after he decided to make a difference in another way, working for the deputy commissioner of community affairs, where he assisted in training and leadership development for sergeants, lieutenants, and captains.
Later, he was recruited to work as chief of staff for outbound operations, a position that allowed him to travel and speak to audiences throughout the world.
“My greatest ability is the ability to connect with people,” he says. “To connect with who they are.”
Remember, Duncanson’s company is called True Destiny. “People think destiny is based on what people told them, they believe they can become more. It’s almost imperceptible how I came into this facet of teaching leadership, because it’s what I believe to be the foundation of my life, all my life.”