Are leaders born or made? This is one of the most frequently asked questions in all leadership development and one I was asked to write about for a leadership journal a few years ago.
But what is this question really asking? Is it asking whether someone will emerge as a leader among a group of peers, or is asking whether someone will perform effectively in a formal leadership position?
This is one view from US leadership guru, Warren G. Bennis:
The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.
You could argue that if leaders are born, then why would so many organisations around the globe invest so much time and money on leadership development programmes and leadership models?
Nature V’s Nurture
Another interesting view is that nature gives you the natural ability /talent, which can then be nurtured as a result of your life experiences and learning from other great leaders. Even if you are born with certain leadership traits, these still need to be nurtured, otherwise you won’t unlock or fulfil your true potential. Personally, I’m attracted to this way of thinking. I have always believed a key reason I became a successful manager and senior manager was, not just as a result of any professional development training but by taking the learning from both good and bad examples of leaders I experienced in my early career. Also, as a result of many amazing adventures, life experiences and working on my own growth and personal development, I believe these factors have helped to position me as a key thought leader in the world of Career Development, especially around Changing Careers and Portfolio Careers.
Therefore, leadership skills and traits can be learnt and developed but how much people enjoy using them is arguably the part that you are born with. This suggests that leadership is a mind-set.
What is a leader?
From my perspective, this is the start point and the there are numerous definitions:
- Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality – Warren G. Bennis
- Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others – Jack Welch
- Leadership is working with and through others to achieve objectives
- A leader is someone who others want to follow (this could be for good or bad reasons, as history has shown us)
- A good leader is someone whose actions and communications have a positive impact on how others feel and behave
When it comes to leadership there is no one size fits all. Every leader has his or her own personality, style, and approach to leading teams. However, when thinking about great leaders, most people immediately relate to well know people such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Alex Ferguson or other captains of industry or sport.
Why? Because these are usually powerful, charismatic people, who have all achieved great things in different walks of life. They have also had a real sense of purpose, vision, great drive, determination and focus on making things happen.
How Important is Charisma?
Many people believe that to be a great leader you have to have oodles of charisma. This clearly helps, as the above examples demonstrate but what about Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and many successful European CEO’s? Often such people are brilliant visionaries but are greatly lacking in the charisma stakes!
Do leaders have to be at the top of the ‘command chain’?
Clearly many leaders will be at the top of the command chain in politics, business, public services, the military, sport, shipping etc. However, if leadership really is about ‘working with and through others to achieve objectives’, then given this definition, anyone in a position whose achievement requires the support of others, regardless of their level of authority or influence, can play the role of a leader. This could be a supervisor, junior or middle manager in the workplace who always have the knack of making their teams feel valued, making things happen and delivering.
Equally, I’m sure we all know people who always seem to be the centre of attention or who are always the one to organise others and events for family, friends, groups, colleagues etc. Often these might also be the person people turn to for advice or comfort in times of personal crisis, playing the typical agony aunt or uncle. I’m sure you will agree that such people are also great leaders, albeit not at the top or part of any command chain.
What is the link with Emotional Intelligence?
The work of Dr Martin Newman and others in this field, suggests that the best leaders are those who understand and develop their Emotional Intelligence and Capital. This is EQ as opposed to IQ.
Much of the coaching that my company does, to either help turn around underperforming managers and leaders or help good leaders to become even better, involves an element of work around Emotional Intelligence. Why? Because, can you imagine the impact of having achieved such a high level of self -awareness of who you are, what you want to achieve and an understanding of how what you say and do influences how other people feel and react? Such emotional intelligence sets apart the good from the great leaders!
What other key traits do good leaders have?
- Authentic – WYSIWYG… what you see is what you get!
- Positive /optimistic
- Inspire trust and respect
- Key influencers
- Good communicators
- Good listeners
- Willingness to learn and put learning into action
- Role models
- Willingness to put their head above the parapet
- Ability to see the bigger picture
I will sum this up with the 3 L’s – Listen, Learn, Lead, all of which suggest that leaders are made. However, by developing and maximising natural born talents and emotional capital, people who naturally gravitate to leadership roles, have the potential to become great leaders! The jury is out!