The debate carries on: Are leaders born or can anyone become a leader? Colleen makes some very interesting and relevant observations here, but I would suggest the critical factor would be to determine what we regard as “leading” and when a person qualifies to be a leader. For instance, is someone with strong (inborn) leadership capabilities a leader even if he or she is not leading anyone? Or the opposite – is someone without any natural leadership capabilities who have learned basic leadership skills which he or she uses to lead people, not a leader? My personal take is that just about anyone could improve their leadership skills: some from poor to acceptable; others from acceptable to good; and yet others from good to great. What do you think?

Thinking is Hard Work

Whether or not we like it, leaders are born, not made. Although our culture would like to believe that there is a kernel of leadership in everyone, I’m just not convinced.

While there might be a bit of leader deep inside everyone, that does not make them a leader. People become leaders when they step forward and when they are accepted as leader by their followers. So let’s break this process down.

In order to step forward, an individual needs to have the desire and drive to lead. Research suggests that these factors are personality traits, long-lived and durable.  In order to be accepted by followers, a prospective leader needs to be perceived as a leader by the followers.  Traits such as intelligence, physical attractiveness and extraversion are traits that followers look for in a leader. You haven’t seen a fat President of the United States in the past 50…

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About Manie Bosman

Manie Bosman is Founder and CEO of the Strategic Leadership Institute. He is a leadership development consultant specializing in the emerging fields of neuroleadership and neurosafety. Based in Pretoria, South Africa, Manie has more than 20 years of international experience in cross-cultural interaction, diversity management, change management, public speaking, communication, corporate training and team development. He holds a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership and believes that effective leadership is the key determiner of success in any venture, group or organization.
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10 Responses to

  1. Bill Withers says:

    A definition of leadership would help. Colleen’s own “ability to influence…to use acquired power to achieve organizational goals and objectives” is a pretty good definition of leadership and she says that is accessible to those of us without leader genes. All of the traits listed so far, except height and good looks, can be learned. Can we think of any short, unattractive leaders? There’s some wonderful research that suggests that what people want from leaders is “credibility” (Kouzes & Posner). Cutting a dashing figure may help with an impression of credibility, but not for long. The barriers to leadership seem more likely to be lack of skill and poor timing (see Gladwell: “Outliers”).

  2. Colleen Sharen says:

    Much of the research on leadership suggests that leadership is about 30% “heritable” and about 70% developed. So needless to say, in order to lead, one has to have the ability, but also the desire and drive. As Bill notes, attractiveness is a short cut that we may use as a cue for leadership ability when we don’t know the individual well, but eventually competence will determine whether the leader retains support.

    Often barriers to leadership are related to our implicit assumptions about what leaders look like and how they behave. We implicitly assume that leaders are extraverts, for example. This makes it difficult for the quieter people among us to aspire to leadership roles. If we challenge our “implicit theories” of leadership, then perhaps we will be on the receiving end of more competent leadership.

    Thanks Manie for reposting my work, I love engaging in conversation with people from all over the world.

    Colleen

  3. rbalinski says:

    My experience and research has taught me that leadership has yet to be defined; requires a natural cognition and skill set; and needs to be developed in order to be fruitful for a given time and place. Leaders are born and when circumstances present themselves they step forward, provided they have matured and developed their natural gifts along the way.

    I have seen natural born leaders squander their talents due to lack of motivation or other chosen ills. As such, when a moment presented itself, they failed to rise to the occasion. Natural ability is critical, as is the 99 perspiration it takes to be ready when called to action.

    It is true, we are prone to lean toward good-looking people, but often they do not live up to their expected deliverance. Character speaks far more than a handsome face, but we rarely take the time to notice integrity until it is too late. The smooth talker will emotionally draw us is, but ultimately let us down. History is filled with examples of good looking smooth talkers who lead nations to ruin and destruction.

    One other factor I need to mention is the underestimation society gives women when it comes to leadership. When I encounter men who fail to follow strong ethical leadership simply because it comes from a women, I often find their inability to follow is in keeping with other characteristics that lack virtue.

    Do we lead by default or design? I think the natural design must be there in order before the ability to choose can come into play.
    Regina Durante

  4. Bill Withers says:

    Hi, Colleen: Thanks for the engaging conversation. Can you point me to the research that says leadership is 30% heritable? thanks — Bill

  5. Manie Bosman says:

    Some great inputs guys! It has been said that people get the leaders they deserve, but I think in many cases it’s the leaders they want. Of course there are situations where people have no choice about who they are led by, but when they do, they seem to choose whoever they perceive to be best suitable to lead in a way that will (ultimately) serve their own needs.

    For instance, I have observed groups in situations where there is a threat or perceived threat to their safety – the group instinctively looks to the strongest individual(s) who (probably based on Colleen’s “implicit assumptions”) are most likely able to defend them or safely get them out of trouble. Why do many sales people dress smartly and drive cars well above their pay grade – are they not “tapping in” on people’s willingness to be led by someone who who will help them make decisions (buy products and services) that will result in wealth or success? Why does people support someone with autocratic behaviour to eventually become a dictator – because they hope to personally benefit from the power they are helping to create. Even the leadership attributes such as trust and credibility to which Bill has referred – are they not ultimately indicators that these leaders will lead in a stable and responsible manner from which we will ultimately derive a personal advantage?

    Colleen, I think you make an excellent point about our implicit assumptions, because many of these self-serving leadership choices would be solidly based on such assumptions. Bill, your “lack of skill and poor timing” is also profoundly true. I’ve often wondered how different Africa might have been if strong leaders (including the Amins and Mugabes) we trained in leadership.Regina, you make some good points, and while I think the leadership abilities of anyone can be improved, I do agree with your final statement that “the natural design must be there” to provide at least a baseline from which to work.

  6. A colleague of mine has tried to explain that leaders are neither born nor made, but rather ‘cornered’-for the lack of a better word, by circumstances and situations that place their minds into taking initiative. Therefore becoming leaders of a group. some fight for leadership, others are born into leadership, at the end of the day, the circumstance allows them to become leaders…

    • R.Durante says:

      True, some fight for leadership while others assume it without effort. Regardless of the how or why, it is initiative that drives the behavior. Most people I know run when they are cornered. Very few will take a stand and fight, either on behalf of others or themselves. Where does this initiative come from? There are many adages…”you can lead a horse to water…. you can’t teach an old dog new tricks… even the Romans had an expression… in facit vestimenta – or – vestimenta facere homo, meaning do clothes make the man, or does the man make the clothes? Who defines whom?

      I am one of many siblings. My mother is a very conservative woman who wears, brown, black, and dark blue. While pregnant with my siblings she stayed within this color scheme. With me however, she was driven to wear bright colors and designs she had never chosen in her life. She said my personality was so strong that it was leading her. When I was five my kindergarten teacher would leave me in charge when she ran to the office or bathroom. She told my mother it was because she knew I could be left in charge and nothing would happen. Yes, this was a different time when such things could happen in school, not today of course, but my point here is what did this teacher see in me that lead her to believe I was a leader and could be left in charge at age five? How in my mother’s womb could circumstances drive my behavior to influence her behavior.

      I think we are born leaders and must develop our skills with wisdom and intent so they are sharpened and ready when our season arrives.

  7. Colleagues,
    I believe leaders are both born and made. Sounds trite, but I believe true. In recent years in an attempt to bring emphasis to what can be developed, we’ve neglected what’s innate; we’ve short-changed the DNA component. Like with great athletes, all the “try” and training in the world won’t get them to the NFL, NBA or Olympics if they don’t have a the genetic potential for it. The good news for most of us, it doesn’t take superior genetics to be a good leader. No more than superior development plans ensure success. Few people truly tap their potential.
    Here’s a quote from a dear uncle that captures concisely my point — “You can never be other than who you are, but you can always be better than who you are now.”
    — Bob Anderson, Toledo OH, to his children on his death bed. Jan 2012

    • Geane says:

      @ Mike …I love that quote and it is so true…I would argue that with enough determination and training the DNA component can be overcome…it is not easy or common but just look at “Mugsey” Bogues, at 5′ 3″ he played for the NBA from 1987-2001, Wikipedia lists 24 players under 5’10”.

      A small number for sure…but the DNA component did not keep them out of the NBA.
      I’m just saying, your DNA may your struggle harder, but it can’t keep you out…only you can do that.

  8. sangeetha says:

    Hi
    Everyone is born a leader – this is my belief and no one has said it better than Lee Dock – the head of Visa in his article “The Art of Chaordic Leadership”.

    Everyone was born a leader. Who can deny that from the moment of birth they were leading parents, siblings, and companions? Watch a baby cry and the parents jump. We were all born leaders; that is, until we were sent to school and taught to be managed and to manage.

    Here is the link to the complete article
    http://www.hesselbeininstitute.org/knowledgecenter/journal.aspx?ArticleID=62

    Best,
    Sangeetha

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