Whether leaders are born and not made is a discussion that has been debated for centuries and yet it still divides opinion today. Like many, on receiving this assignment my instinctive gut response was that they are! However, over the course of my exploration into the subject matter and in greater reflection of my own personal experiences, my contention is now similar to that of the famous and successful American football coach Vince Lombardi who said “Leaders are not born, they’re made. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile”
This sentiment will form the basis of my argument and my position on the topic. However, I will also raise and comment on supporting evidence for the notion that leaders are born and not made.
Before diving into this discussion, logic would dictate that we would first have to confirm a definition of a ‘leader’ and therein lies our first problem as the term ‘leader’ has a multitude of varying definitions. The same is true with leadership, where Stodgill says that “there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept”.
With this in mind and for the purposes of this discussion I would like to go with Google’s simplistic definition, which states that a leader is “The person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country. A person followed by others”
So armed with a definition, lets first discuss the argument against my stance, let us look at the evidence for the notion that leaders are born.
Leaders are born – The Evidence
First up, I cannot sing. In fact, I would go as far as to say I am a terrible singer. At first glance you may be asking yourself, what relevance does that have to the point in hand. The significance is that I know for a fact that no amount of training, coaching or development will ever turn me into a great singer. I was simply not ‘born’ to sing. Perhaps through significant amounts of coaching and training, I could improve to a standard that would avoid inflicting physical pain on my audience – but one thing is certain I will never be a great singer. The same conclusion could be made of leadership; perhaps some people are simply not born to lead, whereas others genetically are.
The other anomaly, that supports the notion that leaders are born is the fact that history is littered with great leaders that were from backgrounds that provide no explanation to how and why they became great leaders..
Henry Ford is a good example of this. A pioneer of the industrial age and revered in history as one of the world’s great leaders. However, Ford did not come from a privileged past, nor had he received significant amounts of education or training that would lend itself to him becoming a great leader. Sangeeth Varghese, from Forbes describes Ford. “As a child, Ford was quiet and inward-looking and spent much of his time around his mother. She died while he was very young, leading him into depression. His father despised him for not showing any interest or skill in farm work and literally wrote Henry off, saying he would never amount to anything. Ford apprenticed as a low-level machinist at various places, not even earning enough for a decent living. He did not possess anything that could make him a born leader–no birthright, no pedigree and certainly no extraordinary attributes”.
Continuing this point, I think we’ve all met Henry Ford’s ‘types’ before, as in those people that have no obvious or apparent reason that explains their natural instinct to lead, and more prevalently are good at it. We have all known born leaders…They were the affable individuals that seemed to ooze charisma, exude confidence and charm and in which the rest of us were naturally drawn to since an early age. They were our ‘Head boys, team captains, club leaders, and the people who held all the available leadership positions that existed in school and early life. They were those popular individuals that you inherently sought approval from. They just seemed to have the ‘leadership’ x factor within them. They were the leaders we all grew up with, and at an age that was impossible for them to have received any formalised training or development.
Another angle to discuss is personality and the very plausible belief that we are born predisposed to certain personality traits. If this holds true then surely certain personality types are better suited to positions of leadership. Therefore. an introvert is unlikely to feel comfortable leading, commanding and being followed, nor are they likely to possess the necessary communication and influencing skills required to garner support and followers.
A person born with a lack of confidence is also unlikely to ever seek out leadership or be comfortable if it is thrust upon them. Desire, another personality trait, in my opinion is also a very important quality in that it essential prerequisite trait that must be possessed by those that go on to become great leaders. Those that do not have the necessary desire to succeed – rarely do.
Leaders are Made – The evidence
The root of my position stems from another debate. A discussion which, in many ways, runs in parallel with this one – the discussion of ‘nature vs. nurture’, on this topic I passionately sit on the side of ‘nurture’ and therefore would feel somewhat hypocritical if I were to advocate the notion that ‘leaders are born!’
My support of ‘nurture’ is based on personal circumstances. I am from a poor background and a long line of non-professional, non-academic lineage. This background created the anticipation that I was not expected, or even encouraged, to succeed academically nor was there any vision of me becoming a professional of any kind but instead to have a similar life and profession of those before me. I rejected this notion from an early age and embarked on everything I was not expected to do, and with every hurdle jumped I proved in my own way that we are greater than the sum of our parts.
In addition, I believe a crude way of interpreting the argument of ‘nurture’ is to have confidence in that with ‘hard effort’ and desire anything is possible and with that notion I was the first of my family to attend university, to leave my home town, and embark on a successful professional career. In summary, as someone who believes in the side of ‘nurture’ on the nature vs nurture’ discussion, I have faith in that we are masters of our own destiny and not just the products of fated D.N.A ergo if I want to become a leader, with the right amount of desire and hard work I can.
On visiting the library I discovered that my belief that leaders could in fact be the result of development was very much shared. Within the business section, there, presented in front of me were literally hundreds of books on the subject of ‘how to become a leader’. It was plainly obvious to me that a number of authors and professionals shared my believed that leadership qualities could be taught and developed. In fact the ‘Leadership’ development’ market is a multi-million dollar industry where not only books are authored on the subject but thousands of seminars and training courses are delivered around the world every year. However, one would assume there is little profit in writing books or delivering training on the subjects like “Why you’re not a leader” or “Born to follow”.
Returning to an earlier point supporting the ‘Born’ view that those born with certain personality types were more likely to go to become leaders is rebuffed by the finding s from “600 studies, done between 1920 and 1960, showed no systematic relationship between personality traits and ability in leadership”. David Grabaovac goes on to state “Researchers have concluded that it is impossible predict effective leadership by studying traits”.
Grabaovoc also states “Education is key to the development of leaders. In addition to natural characteristics, like charisma and love of people, there are important entrepreneurial skills that need to be taught. For example, the ability to articulate a vision, the skills to build and motivate a team, and project management skills are strong leadership skills that can all be learned.” With this sentiment I conclude my argument for belief that leaders can be made.
A problem with my contention is that if leaders could in fact be trained / developed then surely we would be seeing them everywhere, but the truth is that those whom we see and believe to be good leaders are few and far between. Perhaps this apparent lack of leaders is down to something else, perhaps the leadership qualities we associate with leaders is not apparent until that person is put in a position of leadership. Others may argue that leaders demonstrate leadership qualities to acquire leadership roles. Whatever the opinion, there is weakness on both sides of the argument.
One possible solution is the possibility that leaders are not born per se, but certain people are born with the potential to become good leaders. This view moves my position a little more to the centre of the argument.
If indeed certain people have a predisposition towards leadership, I would argue that, that in itself does not guarantee them becoming a successful leader. For example, a person born with ‘fast twitch muscle fibre’ genes, (genes found in 100 meter sprint champions) who are never exposed to running, nor never receive professional sprint training are unlikely to become athletes never mind champions. Another way of looking at this point is to take Mozart for example. Mozart was undoubtedly a musical prodigy – however, if he was never given a musical instrument, then it is fair to assume that his ‘gift’ would ever have been discovered. My overriding point is that even if leadership, like musical ability or athletic prowess is something that you are born with, their still exists the need for fate to pave the road with exposure, training and opportunity for that innate skill to blossom.
To extend this line of thinking further, I believe that not only do you have to be born with innate leadership qualities, and receive the necessary training, development and opportunity but in addition you would need to also WANT to become a leader! Some people, may have all the prerequisites of a great leader but choose not to lead and therefore never do. The desire, in my opinion is the final catalyst.
Perhaps then the answer is that if someone is born with enough DESIRE to be a leader then they will be successful regardless of the skills/attributes with which they are gifted and they will push their selves to succeed and to develop into whatever is required to be a leader. The answer therefore is that leaders are MADE but only out of those born with the prerogative to be one. The debate is in line with nature vs. nurture and also skill vs. will, if someone wants it enough then that could be enough.
So in conclusion, some people are born with innate qualities that predispose them to being leaders, and other people while not naturally gifted with leadership ability can acquire it. Moreover, all leaders, born or made, can improve their ability with desire, experience and effort.
[ 1 ]. Website of Vince Lombardi leadership quotes http://www.vincelombardi.com/quotes.html [ 2 ]. Stodgill, R.M. (1974). Handbook of leadership; a survey of theory and research. New York: The Free Press [ 3 ]. Google Definition.
[ 4 ]. Forbes Website article by Sangeeth Varghese http://www.forbes.com/2007/11/29/leaders-born-fordism-lead-ceo-cx_sv_1129varghese.html [ 5 ]. Website of Vince Lombardi leadership quotes http://www.vincelombardi.com/quotes.html [ 6 ]. Grabaovac, David. Are Leaders Born or Made (2004-2008) [ 7 ]. Grabaovac, David. Are Leaders Born or Made (2004-2008) [ 8 ]. Grabaovac, David. Are Leaders Born or Made (2004-2008)