Are Leaders Born or Bred? An Interview With Joanna Schneier, CEO of Cognotion

3 min read · 6 years ago


A native of Israel, Joanna Schneier, CEO of Cognotion, Inc. has been developing cutting-edge learning applications since 1999. With her Cognotion colleagues, she built the two leading digital language learning products in the U.S. foreign language K-12. She has focused on fostering strong collaborative relationships in both educational and corporate settings. Follow her work @cognotion.

Do you believe that good leaders are born or bred?

Born of course; at least it would seem so given the lack of diversity among leaders. But Cognotion is a company grounded in science — science that suggests that leaders can be developed. But it isn’t easy. I think fundamental to our approach is what is known as distributed leadership. If one buys all of the trait-based popular literature, one would buy the myth of a lone hero. But the research suggests that this probably is just that: a myth. There is some evidence that distributed leadership might be a more realistic way to think of leaders and “leadership” as more of a system, embedded in the people, tools and culture of organizations. 

So if a company wants to really realize its strategy, it probably isn’t prudent to send a handful of folks to a top business school for a “high profile” program. It would be more prudent to teach the strategy rather than communicate it, and make sure that everyone understands the vision and their role. There is a lot of research grounded in sociology that talks about the connected organization. In a connected world, the idea of leader as an individual is at best overstated.

What is one characteristic every leader needs to succeed?

At Cognotion, we don’t so much believe in characteristics but rather in skills, knowledge and what might be known as dispositions. Leaders need to know certain things and be able to do certain things. I very much like Herminia Ibarra’s work at Insead, which suggests that contrary to the popular notion that leadership is intuitive, leadership is both an intellectual exercise and also a creative one.

Consequently, I like to think that the ability to frame an issue; to make sense of an environment; to weigh options; to make a decision and share it with others might be a decent list. I also very much like Welsh’s notion of the leader as a teacher. In every religious faith the leader is called “teacher” (e.g., Rabbi, Guru, etc.). I like that frame. One thing as a woman that I must bring up though is that there’s intriguing research that suggests that a few more women than men in a company is the best predictor of success — more so even that the aggregation of the individual IQs of the team. So if I had to pick one thing, maybe the only “characteristic” might be gender.

What is required to be a great leader?

If one buys my argument of leadership as a system, then one needs to use a frame analogous to John Dewey’s, which suggests significant interaction effects between the market, the organization and the leader. To that end, it takes a shared vision, a strategy that everyone understands individually and ecumenically, an organization aligned to that vision and strategy and the right people able to do the right things. So beyond serendipity, perhaps the most important thing is the ability to attract the right people and to develop them. I guess at my heart, I’m a teacher. Certainly Cognotion exists to help leaders realize their strategies through their people.

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