Are Leaders Born or Made?

May 21, 2007 on 6:51 am | In Leadership | Comments Off

When you look at the literature, there are numerous “lists” of what to look for when trying to find (or define) a leader. Without belaboring all of them, the more recent leadership tomes suggest that “leadership” is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. A person who excels in one area of leadership, for example teaching Sunday school, might not succeed as a Donald Trump, and vice versa. In some cases there is a lack of the necessary knowledge about the subject matter (do you think Trump could teach Sunday school?) but it also has to do with credibility, confidence, and other traits that both business writers and psychologists have suggested. The things that made Patton a great military leader are not necessarily the same traits or behaviors that made the Beatles leaders in the world of pop music. Leadership is often situational – as when a leader is discovered because of a crisis. Many leaders (and heroes) were “born” on 9/11, for example.

If you accept that leaders are born, then what is the use of all of the books and training that is going on trying to teach people how to be a leader? If it comes only from a natural, innate “gift” that you either have or you don’t, the rest of us are just wasting our time trying to learn it. You can certainly learn to be an expert in any given subject matter, and you can learn various behaviors (such as negotiation skills, discipline of employees, mentoring, decision making, self discipline, etc.) that are traditionally attributed to leaders. The bottom line is, if you have people around you who choose to follow you, then you are a leader. Break their trust, and you lose the privilege of leading them. And as John Maxwell teaches us, one of the most important traits of a leader is the ability to develop those around them into leaders as well – at all levels of the organization. If leadership cannot be learned, he, too, has just been wasting his time telling us that!

It is certainly true that some of these behaviors are more easily and readily adopted by those we sometimes perceive as “natural” leaders, but I have also seen very charismatic people develop a following when in fact they were terrible leaders (and pretty awful people as well!). And with effort and dedication, I have also seen people who appear to have very little “natural” leadership talent develop themselves into very dynamic and productive leaders. And as noted by another commentator, having the desire to lead has a lot to do with whether a person will devote themselves to the process of developing themselves into leaders.

One of the best recent books on the topic is Goffee and Jones’ Why Should Anyone be Led by You?, and I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants to understand this dynamic and learn more about what it takes to be an effective (note, I use that word rather than “successful”) leader. My bottom line on this topic is that leaders are made, not born, but the traits that make people great leaders often come more easily to some than to others.

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