Are You Born a Leader or Can You Learn to Lead?


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It could be argued that great leaders are born, but it takes circumstances to make them great. At the same time, it can then be argued that without the circumstances, they would never be leaders, so therefore, they are made.

Leaders are Born

The most commonly held belief about leaders is that they are born. Those who support this reasoning say that for someone to be a leader, they must be born with the attributes that will make them a leader.

Looking at the definition of a leader, they are someone who rules, or guides, or inspires others. Therefore, a leader is someone who others are willing to follow to the ends of the Earth, without question. The leader has a great deal of confidence, they make the right decisions, but if they make a wrong decision they are not afraid to admit it.

Those who say leaders are born believe that people will simply know when someone is a leader. This comes down to that charisma factor. If someone lacks charisma, any amount of determination will mostly be lost because they will have few, if any followers.

This intangible characteristic, many will argue, is simply something people are born with. It is not something you can see, but it is something you feel. When a follower comes across this type of individual, they do not know what the characteristic in the leader is that they are drawn to, but they know the leader has it.

This is the strongest argument for saying that leaders are born, not made. How can you make charisma? You can have a nice suit, nice hair, and a handsome or pretty face, but when it gets down to being a leader, will people follow you? They may do so briefly, before realizing that the ‘leader’ has no idea what they are doing.

Acting is all about faking charisma. You have to fool the audience into thinking you are the boss in the movie or the play, you have to fool them into thinking you are more of a leader than you are, but there, it is all just acting.

Hence, leaders are born. They do not have to act, they do not have to fake it, they are just automatically leaders.

It can be difficult to disprove that leaders are born, not made. Look at any great leader in history and people will say they had the skills that made them great leaders already in them. They will argue that what made them great was not the circumstances, but how their innate talents responded to those circumstances.

For those who believe that people are made as leaders, not born, it can be hard to disagree.



Leaders are Made


This is the other common belief in terms of leadership, that leaders are made. Most people accept that a leader is not a leader when they come out of the womb, and that their life experiences must forge them into the person they are going to be, the leader that they will be.

Essentially, when looking at leadership from this perspective, we have to look at leadership as an apprenticeship trade. That means that people learn to be leaders by being around leaders. No different than when welders learn to be welders by apprenticing as welders; leaders learn by being apprenticed by leaders, even if they do not wholly realize it.

Learning to be a leader is all about watching other leaders and emulating their behavior. They may be reading about Alexander the Great and choose to emulate his leadership style, or perhaps their leader is their father and they want to honor him with their own leadership. As they begin to go through life, these potential leaders seek out more and more mentors to teach them how to handle situations and become quality leaders. They begin to improve from feedback that they receive from those around them, which they then put to use.

A leaders are like scientists, when we think of leaders being made not born, because they learn by trying out new techniques and figuring out what will work and what will not work. They will critique their own performance in these situations, and any failure is only a failure if they do not learn from the experience.

The concept of leaders learning from their failures was outlined in an excellent book called Geeks and Geezers, by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas. In it, they identified the ‘crucibles’, which are the trials and hard lessons that leaders use to build on their strengths for future problems. However, while many called these ‘failures’, leaders see them as the potential to take a bad situation and create something good out of it.

This is how effective leaders control their destiny. They take control of their development and use the training opportunities that are available to them. They use these training programs to get the job done and to learn from every one of their experiences.

This is evident in a study done by Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan. In it, they looked at the progress of 88,000 managers who went to leadership development training. Afterwards, they viewed those who returned from training and looked at who talked about the training and used what they had learned on the job, versus those who did not. They found that those who used what they learned to improve their job performance were much more effective leaders, while those who did not use what they learned showed no improvement whatsoever.


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