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  • ARE LEADERS BORN OR MADE?

    But people have to be born to lead.. I recently heard these words uttered by the human resources manager of a large firm, and understood them to mean that birth is the key to identification of leaders. The obvious inference was that leaders are born, not made. I reflected that this assertion could only come from the silk purse and sow’s ear theory of leader identification, which dominated the selection and appointment of military leaders in Britain, and elsewhere, up to the period of the First World War. Along with the millions of lives needlessly wasted through incompetent leadership, this theory was ignominiously buried with much of the sociological detritus that contributed to the causes of that conflict.

    Nevertheless, her remark was a reminder that almost a century later much of the general understanding of the psychology and practice of leadership is both simplistic and superficial, and seeks expression in outdated paradigms. What is the answer to the question, are leaders born or made? Much turns on linking concepts of leadership functions and practical leadership skills with each word, born and made. Recent research into the workings of the human psyche has introduced concepts such as emotional and spiritual intelligence in addition to traditional psychological concepts about leadership. Using lessons, research and experience gleaned since the end of the First World War, The Leadership Academy contends that leaders are both born and made.

    A military analogy could accommodate born and made as the obverse and reverse of the leadership dichotomy. In former times when family status at birth was the pre-eminent consideration for leadership appointments, born served also as a metaphor for wealth, status, advantage, and power. History reveals that this leadership paradigm was false, for it resulted in leadership at all commissioned officer levels being conferred upon many individuals who were gravely deficient in leadership capacity, albeit many were uncommonly brave in battle.

    In contrast, in modern leadership discourse, born is a metaphor for each individual, and everything that distinguishes one person from all others. The singular distinguishing features emanating from birth and family upbringing are: personal characteristics, such as personal qualities and personality; intellectual capacity and acquired knowledge; physical capacity; and life-time personal experiences. Thus, in modern leadership usage, born eschews suggestions of privilege and preferment, but it has become an important guide in the matter of identification of leadership aspirants.

    Made is the reverse of born. It means personal development as a leader. This development includes intellectual development of the individual through general education, lessons-from-life- experiences both as follower and leader, the acquisition of specific leadership theory, and training in the application of received theory and practice in both leadership and management disciplines. The core idea that underpins the making of leaders is the belief that the overwhelming majority of people possess innately a measure of leadership potential that is normally evident in their informal associations and that can be developed with suitable education, training, coaching and mentoring, and experience.

    The complexity of leadership is such that leadership paradigms pertaining to both born and made overlap and are interrelated, with many subtleties and nuances. Up to adulthood, it is largely external circumstances that determine whether each person’s innate intelligence is nourished and stimulated, or neglected or starved. Home, school and social environments aggregate as the most significant influences on levels of learning achieved. In terms of emotional maturity, genetic factors are prone to exert a softening influence on leadership behaviour, but knowledge of the tenets of functional leadership acts as a powerful countervailing force in the resolution of conflict between heart and head. This maturity assists leaders who must select the correct path forward, not necessarily the easiest, or one most favoured by those who do not carry the burden of leadership. Emotional maturity is often manifest as integrity and spiritual intelligence.

    Then there is the key practical ability to motivate people to work together to achieve results under pressure. This key ability has been identified as being an absolutely essential leadership capability. There is no precise and conclusive evidence as to why some people have, or are able to develop, this ability whilst others cannot, but it is generally agreed that experience in situations requiring the exercise of leadership as well as commonsense are strong factors. Also, experience over many years suggests that one must be prepared to accept the responsibility and accountability inherent in being a leader. Leadership is a demanding challenge and no amount of encouragement or cajoling will make a leader from one who is not prepared to accept that challenge. In other words, one must possess the desire to lead.

    A word that should be synonymous with leadership is care. Effective leaders care for people. It follows that a significant leadership quality is a capacity for empathy, as this quality is instrumental in the development of mutual trust that underlies sound individual and team relationships. Ideally, care is an intrinsic personal quality, but if not, it is one that can be developed. The transportability of this quality has been exploited by Hollywood in many epic movies.

    We conclude that leaders are both born and made. Being born into a particular family or social class in Australian society might give an advantage but it does not automatically qualify one to be a leader. However, the innate intelligence with which we are born does have an influence on our leadership ability, as does the environment in which we develop our personality, values and behavioural attributes. Yet intelligence, personality, values and behaviour of themselves are not sufficient. Having the desire to accept the responsibilities and accountabilities of leadership, and the experience of leadership in a wide range of challenging situations are also needed in the developmental process.

    Finally, potential leaders must develop their innate skills by personal study, training, coaching and mentoring, and accepting new challenges. Learning about leadership is a life-long task. Leaders who believe they know it all have reached a state of hubris in which it is likely that the seeds of limited advancement or even future failure have been sown.

    Peter McDougall with John Innes February 2003