Are Leaders Made or Born?

This question is a regular in executive circles… are leaders “made” or “born?” Do we have to find that person who by birthright is destined for leadership greatness, or can we cultivate, foster, and nurture someone with currently-unrealized potential to be that leader?

Combat Leadership
Leadership is necessary in combat, but doesn’t hold its definition there; it may do so for current and/or former members of the military (of which I’m proudly included), but not necessarily the rest of the world. I’ve known many combat leaders who could only purportedly “lead” while in combat. They were ineffective without a crisis. Combat needs leaders; we don’t require combat, though, to have leaders. Long-term organizational leaders don’t have the “luxury” of crisis to be effective.

Critical Leadership
To use simple criticality as the overarching criteria, then trauma surgeons would be more of a leader than a high-performing CEO, merely because of job function. I don’t agree with that thinking, either. Again, crisis management — maintaining a calm, authoritative head under pressure — is an incredibly valuable skill. But it’s not the core foundation for effective leadership.

Leaders are made, not born. It’s easier, of course, to start with someone who has a known propensity (assessments or demonstrated performance) to “learn to lead.” It’s not, however, a necessity. If we take the time and effort, and are willing to marshall the appropriate resources, we can make the leaders of tomorrow from within our existing organization.

Additionally, leadership is entirely situational, which drives people to say things like “She has no potential to become a leader.” They actually mean “Given what I know about leadership from my experiences, this person doesn’t fit that description.” They could easily become an incredible leader elsewhere, as many have proven out in other organziations. the converse is also true: Given again that leadership is largely situational, a successful leader in one organziation may or may not be completely successful in another. Change the dynamics, change the opportunities for success.

I also believe that management and leadership are inextricably linked, so I don’t spend huge amounts of time trying to split hairs on the definitions. That, of course, is a posting in and of itself, so I’ll save the details for later.


Kevin Berchelmann

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