As an ‘ice-breaker’ at a recent PROMSG higher education-oriented workshop groups were asked to categorise project management skills that were innate, acquired by practice or through teaching.

The participants did not have time for serious reflection, so too much should not be read into the lists produced. The brief was purposely / inevitably vague. For example the precise meaning of ‘skill’ was not defined and the categorisation of three types of skill was crude. But the aim was to get people talking.

One issue was the level of a skill needed for a particular role. A successful project manager may need to be able to put together a report that is accurate and clear, but they do not need to have won the Booker prize.

Where particularly advanced skills are needed, say in a footballer, you might expect most world class players to have some innate abilities. These could include spatial awareness and physical dexterity. You would also expect coaches to teach them technical knowledge. This could almost be ‘academic’ in some cases, for example knowledge of the off-side rule. Or they could be quite physical as in the most ergonomic way of making a certain category of kick.

The definition of ‘practice’ above needed to be clarified. It could mean training, i.e. going through practical exercises simulating aspects of the real world. If you want people to learn to draw up activity networks then they need to actually draw some up. This type of practice is different from learning on the job - what you pick up through daily experience.

There were differences in our groups in the attitude towards the innate qualities. One post-it note had just a single word ‘Nothing!’ when it came to identifying innate qualities. This is no surprise as professional teachers and trainers are usually reluctant to dismiss any quality as unteachable - but most would admit the cost of the teaching might be so high as to be not worth the effort.

On the other hand, to deny innate personal characteristics is to suggest people are all the same. Few parents with more than one child would agree with that. Another view was that there were just one or two few key qualities such as leadership that were innate - some people just have it and some do not.

Volumes have been written on leadership, so justice cannot be done to this issue in a short space. We just note that a belief in the innate nature of leadership implies that training should in part be a form of selection process. Assessment and possible failure are essential in order to identify the naturally gifted.

One risk in this approach is that the people who are capable of leadership may not be immediately obvious. Many may not seem to be natural leaders because initially they lack confidence, but through experience gain a self-belief in the contribution they can make in a leadership role - Elizabeth Harrin has pointed out that this can be particularly the case with women.

A salutary story is that of Nobel prize-winning Daniel Kahneman (2011) who as a young man had the job of assessing the leadership potential of army recruits put through a group exercise getting a large log over six foot wall without the log or any of the team actually touching the wall. He and his colleague always felt very sure of their judgments, but follow-up reports of the recruits consistently revealed their forecasts of the leadership capabilities were only just a bit better than blind guesses. (Daniel Kahneman (2011) Thinking fast and slow. Penguin).