Are Your Leaders Born or Made?

I would not like to estimate the number of times I have been asked my opinion on whether leadership can truly be developed in an individual or does leadership stem from a combination of personal characteristics and attributes that some of us are fortunate to be born with. One such occasion arose recently when I was talking to a group of students at my local university.

“Well, let’s take a look at the evidence or lack of it” I suggested.

“First of all there is no generally accepted definition of Leadership. Indeed the last time I looked there were in the region of two hundred alternatives available to choose from! So the reality is that all of us carry around in our heads our own definition drawn from a combination of our experiences of both leading and being led and probably some sort of vision of the leader that we aspire to be.”

“Just think about that for a moment. Let’s say I asked you all to write down on a piece of paper a definition of leadership and what constitutes a good leader in the context of your definition. The range of answers would exceed the number of people in the group because some of you wouldn’t be able to make up your mind and would qualify your responses”

“To some of you Leadership is an expression of activity – creating a vision, communicating and the like – to others leadership is behavioural; it’s about values and characteristics and to some of you it’s about performance – how well something is done. Also, any measures that you have will be, almost without exception subjective – your own opinion”

“Let’s take an example” I continued. “A common premise within academic literature and has general support amongst practitioners is that leaders should be ‘self-aware’. Interestingly I cannot find anywhere an example of a model of self-awareness let alone one that is generally accepted and supported by documented evidence of applicability. This is just one example but it is fairly typical of the whole range and depth of leadership theory and research.”

“So what is the implication of this for both us and our organisations?” asked an individual from within the group.

“Well, if we assume that the objective of your organisation is to enhance its performance across a broad church of stakeholders and concurrently develop it future leadership potential which seems a reasonable assertion – do you think it has sufficient knowledge or the necessary tools and techniques to deliver on that?”

“Hmm, probably not. I suppose that’s why we always tend to choose the same type of individual for our leadership development programmes. You know the keen ones who make it pretty clear that they want to be leaders. The trouble is that most of them are only in it for themselves not to develop the rest of the organisation” he responded.

“Well that’s as maybe but the fact of the matter is that over time some of them do develop into the leaders your organisations want. The really interesting thing would be to find out why……”


4 thoughts on “Are Your Leaders Born or Made?

  1. Nick, great article..!! My two cents. Leadership as a quality is something that can be worked upon and developed further as a person grows. But I have seen several examples where a person may not have the makings of a leader from the outset and might just have a handful of strong deep-rooted values, values that sometimes people are born with and ones that they absorb from family and friend while they are young. While every one has certain set of values in life, it is only a few that lead us through the tunnel. It is only those few that achieve leadership as a state of mind. Doesnt that mean that there is something about the few that probably went through similar life experiences but were able to turn into a state of mind unparalleled by members of the same community, leading to the theory that they are born and not just evolved.

    • Hi Viggie – thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. You’ve raised some interesting points particularly about leadership being a state of mind. This is pretty close to my particular viewpoint and is one I’m looking to develop with a few academic friends. Perhaps we could discuss this further.

  2. Found this stimulating. Leading to reflection on leadership and what are the origins of quality leaders. Wonder if listening skills and leadership skills go hand in hand and add to the mix the art of gaining insight not everyone has.

    • Hi – there is no doubt that the ability to listen is fundamental to great leadership but it is one of many attributes that a leader uses above and beyond the norm and hence gains the insight that others fail to deliver upon.

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