Article: Are leaders born or made?


Are leaders born or made?

Effective leaders are a rare commodity, and organizations are trying every trick in the book to develop them.
Are leaders born or made?

This question has its roots in the nature/nurture argument, and is probably as old as the argument itself. Numerous studies and researchers have thrown light on it, but the truth is not as simple as an equation, as we logical human beings would love to have. 

Imagine having an equation like 0.3 genes + 0.5 environment+ 0.2 life situations = Leadership.

Wow! That would be the magic sauce for leadership. Since so much has been written on how leaders are developed, I thought there’s no harm if I add my two cents to it. So, here is my perspective.

Are leaders born or made? Let us examine this debate a little more deeply. If we assume that leaders are born – that leadership is all about what one is gifted with as inborn talents and native abilities, we are treading the path of the deterministic theory. This theory says that there is not much in an individual’s control, s/he is programmed according to his genes, and will therefore behave as his genes direct him. In my view, this theory devalues the role of a unique endowment called “free will” – which is the ability to choose our response to what happens to us. This is the ability that helps us make lemonade when life throws a lemon at us. Capable leaders choose to respond in a certain way when life throws a challenge at them. In doing so, they further their own development as a leader. To that extent, leaders are “made”.

Now, let us stretch this argument to the other extreme, and say that it is all about the environment the leader is brought up in, and it has nothing to do with his DNA / genes. This argument denounces the role of the Supreme Intelligence, the intelligence which decides the formation of the planets around the sun. It is the intelligence which decides that one child is born in famine stricken Ethiopia and another is born with a silver spoon in his mouth. 

We will try and marry these two arguments at the end of this article, meanwhile let us delve a little deeper into leadership development. Effective leaders are a rare commodity, and organizations are trying every trick in the book to develop them. They spend millions of dollars every year to develop their leadership pipeline. Sadly, not every leadership development program delivers excellent results. It’s important to understand the critical factors that lead to the success of the program. Based on my experience, here a few suggestions on crafting an effective leadership development program: 

WHO is more important than What

BEFORE you start designing a leadership program, BEFORE you rope in the best facilitators, BEFORE you send your employees to the most expensive retreat, PAUSE and reflect on “WHO” should be chosen to receive these gold nuggets of learning. Only those who value them, and are willing to make the effort to apply these learning must be chosen. While it is true that everyone will benefit from learning, organizations have limited resources, and must choose to expend them wisely. Often times, organizations mandate that a certain set of employees need to attend a leadership program. Some of these employees may be unwilling learners, and efforts to enable their learning may not yield results. Willingness to learn is a very important factor for successful transfer of learning. Look for competencies like learnability, perseverance, diligence, drive and integrity while choosing participants for a leadership development program.

Top management commitment

Are there senior executives who are championing the leadership development program? Are there senior people who genuinely believe that leadership development is critical for the organization, and are willing to lobby for the required resources and support? Also, are they willing to spend some time and energy on reviewing the learning of the participants, sharing their own philosophies of leadership, and maybe take a session or two on different leadership topics. Without top management commitment, HR will flounder with its efforts on leadership development. Before you start with the leadership development effort, speak with your senior leadership team, and give them a realistic understanding of what is needed from them in terms of resources, time and energy for the success of the program. They need to understand that they are very important partners with HR in the journey towards effective leadership. 

Blended curriculum

Can you learn to swim only by reading books on how to swim? At some point, you will need to jump into the water and actually swim. Similarly, leaders cannot be developed only in classrooms. It’s important to have a strong conceptual foundation for a leadership development program, using the best research and literature. But, that must be supplemented by experiential learning. Creating real assignments which participants need to complete is an important piece of the leadership development jigsaw. All 3 elements of learning – learning from experience, learning from relationships and feedback, and classroom learning must be included to create a blended learning curriculum. Such a holistic effort on developing leadership is more likely to succeed. 

Now coming back to my original question – Are leaders born or made? I believe in the “Genius of the AND” (I picked up this beautiful phrase from Jim Collins book “Built to Last). Leaders are born AND made. It is a unique combination of innate talents, life circumstances and their responses to life’s challenges that makes a leader. So, it’s no longer about nature or nurture. It is about nature AND nurture. 

Given this understanding of leadership development, what is the role of the leadership development expert? I believe the role is that of a diamond cutter. A diamond cutter does not create a diamond, but he can cut the edges fine, and polish it so that it sparkles from every angle – fully, completely – as much as it was meant to! 

Here are a few sentences I like to remind participants whenever I conduct a leadership development workshop: 

You are Blessed

The Supreme Master blesses with the mettle to lead mankind,
Only His hand creates the diamond that can mesmerize the mind, 
We, mere mortals, can just make this diamond dazzle more bright, 
And, with it, adorn crowns that promise to lead humanity towards light.

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Topics: Leadership, Leadership Development

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