Are leaders made or are leaders born?
The age old question. Are leaders made or are they born? My belief on this – I believe that a leader is made, not born. Why do I say that? Before going further, lets be clear on one distinction – when we say a leader is made, it does not mean that someone can be taught to become a leader by attending leadership courses. While it helps, it is not enough. Warren Bennis (a leading leadership researcher) believes that one cannot be taught to become a leader but one can learn to become a leader over the years through life and work experiences, through mentors, personal reflection, etc.
What is a leader by the way? For the purpose of this discussion, lets define it as someone with formal leadership authority in an organization. There is another form of leadership which is not about the position, but a quality, but we will not delve into that for now.
Marcus Buckingham wrote a very interesting and widely informative book called “The One thing you need to know… about Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success”. It’s a great read – I highly recommend it. In it he proposes that a leader is born, and not made because of two characteristics which are only peculiar to leaders. These 2 characteristics are innate and are part of one’s personality and therefore, one cannot learn to develop such character traits.
The first trait is optimism or having an optimistic outlook, always focusing on the possibilities. With this disposition, one believes that challenges can be overcome and they can forge ahead.
The second trait is what he calls ego or self-assurance. Another term that comes to mind is self-efficacy. A person with this trait has a strong belief in himself. Self-assurance is not the same as being optimistic, although you can see that being optimistic helps and reinforces one’s sense of self-belief. What is important to note about self-efficacy is the belief that one can control one’s destiny, not whether one actually can or is successful in controlling what happens. Even if he doesn’t have the answers now, he believes that he would be able to overcome the problem, by marshalling whatever resources, creativity and connections available to him. The confidence comes from within and he truly believes that come what may, regardless of what life throws at him, he is able to handle it.
The question is, are these 2 traits really innate and cannot be developed? Marcus Buckingham believes so but I beg to differ. I believe that we are not only highly adaptable and flexible, but have the potential to do anything if we set our minds to it. Sure, genetics play a part and you can’t change that, but what’s more important and makes the difference in our long-term success & accomplishments is our mindset.
The research of Dr. Carol Dweck lends strong support to this. People with a growth mindset (versus a person with a fixed mindset) believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. Dr Dweck proved that they’re wrong. This is another book (it’s called Mindset) that I highly recommend because it truly has the power to change the way you look at yourself and others!
So, what this means is that qualities like optimism and self –efficacy can be developed if one adopts a growth mindset. For example, if I’m aware that I am not optimistic enough and tend to think of the downside more often than the upside, I can learn to become more optimistic because I know doing so helps strengthen that leadership trait in me. As a side point on the topic of optimism, evidence from decades of research by Dr Martin Seligman shows that people can learn to be optimistic. The topic is examined in great depth in his bestseller "Learned Optimism” – another excellent book I would recommend as well.
In summary, I would reiterate that while there are natual born leaders, leaders can indeed be “made” or developed if one adopts a growth oriented mindset.