Are leaders like this born or made?

Its come up again in the last few weeks and its something I think a lot about. Can Leaders be made? Or do they have to be born? The longer I spend on our little rock spinning through space the more I become convinced it’s the latter. Leaders can only be born? Not made? But then again, I don’t know…

Lets look at talent generally. It surprises me that for almost everything else, we accept natural selection at work. But not in leadership terms. And I don’t know why.

The case for the prosecution 

We all accept we can’t all play in football teams that will lift the Champions League trophy, we understand, no matter how much we may desire otherwise, we will never take our rightful place on the PGA tour, winning millions hitting a little white ball around a field. We accept without rancour that there are superstars who’s almost inhuman sporting prowess have allowed them to exist in an everlasting pantheon of greats to be eulogised about and romanticised to ever-increasing levels of fame.

It’s the same outside of sports. Back during our school days we decided which path to take with our studies. We allowed those inclined to the sciences free reign, neither holding them back or seemingly interested in their pursuit of knowledge. We saw the artists amongst us rise to take their places in the creative world without a second thought, much less an envious glance from us, we the ‘ordinary’, the ‘normal’ population.

And particularly today, we realise, some are born to write ‘computer code’, to develop the machines and devices that are helping us to hurtle into a science fiction future. We can’t do those things, those people are special, they may even be even freaks, depending on your point of view. But we do understand that we can’t do what they do. And we accept that.

It’s tough at the top

And so to business, and leadership particularly. Its strikes me its easy to get ‘into’ this world. A smart mouth or an eye for a deal and you’re in. An ability to sell is enough to propel one high into the corporate stratosphere. And suddenly one finds oneself ‘leading’.

Leading an organisation. Leading a company, or a department. With no qualification other than your ability to perform the speciality that your department focuses on. Sales people become sales managers whether they are any good at managing people or not. Another example, accountants become finance directors, again, simply because they were good at the job they were employed originally to do.

And now these people are leading us. Responsible for our employment and consequently, in large part our future. And some of them are not very good at it at all.

Some are great. Like some sort of populist equivalent to that sports star we talked about they get book deals and appear on television. We aspire to be like them in the same way as we want to play football at the highest level, or rugby for our country, but something is different this time.

Why is this different? 

For some reason, we believe we can emulate these people. Maybe it’s because their feats aren’t physical. They posses, we tell ourselves, powers of the mind and control over the emotions. Powers we can learn for ourselves. Powers we can capture for ourselves by reading their books, or watching their videos. Even more strangely, and this has really left me scratching my head over the years, some of them have no qualification to teach us at all. We believe we can learn these powers from people whose only qualifications are that they were able to secure a book deal.

People that write self-help books, people who write management books, people who write leadership books. In the majority of cases, their only experience of the ‘greatness’ we aspire to is some vague and unsubstantiated story they tell in the books we consume voraciously.

And I’m afraid the internet has made it worse. Ebooks and blogs (I am aware of the irony!) that purport to be able to impart the secrets of success abound. Where ever you look there are tips for the top and strategies that will ensure your ascension to the highest levels of the corporate world.

In no other field that I am aware of do we think we are able to emulate the top percentage, these highest performers in the same way we think we can emulate great leaders.

Don’t go throwing your business degree out just yet

And the same thing goes for serious business schools. They too pitch the dream that you, ordinary Joe, can learn to stride the corridors of power. All it takes is a little revision and the passing of some exams, and you are a fully qualified leader of people.

I wonder why this is the case? I wonder why leadership of all things, is the one area we think we can achieve greatness in, from a standing start. Without any prior evidence to support the ambition. Without any rational basis whatsoever sometimes, in my opinion. We can sign up to leadership school and take the course, and emerge complete, a leader for the modern world to look up to.

Thats not to say these things can’t have a positive impact. I am absolutely sure that those who are capable of managing people, of leading organisations to greater things no doubt gain valuable knowledge and experience from attendance at business schools and leadership courses. Thats not my argument. I fully accept a great leader going into a system such as this comes out improved, maybe beyond all recognition. But I wonder if it has to be in them in the first place?

There are plenty of sports coaching manuals for sure, videos and websites to enhance your golf, tennis, squash or whatever it maybe, but no one seriously expects to attain the highest levels. Improve ourselves yes, copy the success of the stars no.

We wouldn’t dream of turning up at Manchester United’s football ground and demand training and a shot at the big time. The thoughts that we might call up a Simon Cowell and offer our musicianship to his record company are the merest flight of fancy (The X Factor and BGT notwithstanding!) But we genuinely think a course, or a book, or a blog will propel us to success beyond out wildest dreams?

Now its gets really confusing 

I don’t buy it. Leaders are born not made surely. Like great footballers, golfers, cricketers et al. Leaders are polished yes, improved, honed even, by some brilliant coaches and mentors and academics. But then again…

I also believe anyone can achieve anything. Bit general I know! But that’s what I believe. There are choices that we make that define who we are and where we get to. I know this is a big topic, but stay with me. I know some people get stuck in life, and some don’t have the opportunities for lots of reasons, but simply put, anyone can be anything they want. If they want it enough, and are willing to work hard enough that is.

Nothing is given to you on a plate. You have to earn it.

So which is it? Are leaders born? Or can anyone achieve anything they want to? I think this one will keep me awake at night for a long time yet. Let me know what you think below, leave a comment on the Facebook page, or tweet me @radiojaja, or even email me on [email protected]

  1. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Hi Tony – Please don’t confuse “technical skills and talent” with the personality traits, qualities and attributes of effective leaders.
    I wasn’t born with the talents (to develop the world class technical skills) of a sports player – although I confess to being a cracking lacrosse player (and nearly blinding the Head Girl in an illegal tackle many moons ago) as well as being a pretty good competitive and skilled tennis player in more recent years. But in neither case because I was born with the talent (i.e. technical capability) but rather because I applied my personal qualities and attributes to work out how I could perform well without the top notch skills i.e. I worked out the mental challenges, the strategy, how to catch my opponent(s) on the hop, developed my capacity for taking a risk, logically worked out which skills I could improve that would make a real difference and concentrated on those. In other words, I was a less than mediocre tennis and lacrosse player who learnt to use “me” to greater impact, while working with my partner or team to enhance the impact of their skills.Now actually that is what leadership is about in my opinion.

    Was I born like that? Obviously not. This is something I learnt and developed over the years. Basically along life’s journey I have made choices about how I will react, behave, collaborate and about what matters to me – those choices have influenced my behaviours. Indeed that is what you concluded – we all make choices.

    I believe that the mantra “I am a leader” applies to all of us – but then we each choose whether to do anything about it, within our family, work or wider networks and responsibilities. Having made that choice, we’ll all make mistakes, learn from them and apply the learning to other scenarios and steadily the personal attributes and qualities are developed and honed, and we develop the 3 core leadership skills of reflection, resilience and resourcefulness ………….. or not. Sure I accept that some study / training / qualifications assist that learning – but it is the real life application of the study, together with the hard lessons learnt (and taking the time to reflect on what has been learnt) that builds an individual’s leadership capacity. (What use is the MBA or the Masters in Leadership if the individual is not applying that learning and refining it through real-life leadership?)

    So – my conclusion is that we are all born with the capacity to lead (in one way or another), we then choose whether to accept the responsibility to show initiative and take the lead and bring others on board and work with them as our team and then we learn (often through our mistakes and the hard times) and steadily hone our leadership skills and capacity.and along with that our emotional strength and resilience to deal with the hard stuff that comes with being a leader (in whatever capacity).

    In a nutshell – leaders are grown, we can all lead but we make a choice whether to accept the responsibility to contribute (or to sit back and watch others) to do this or not.

    Maybe I can offer you a guest contribution to your blog after we’ve held the Leading Wales Awards Lunch and Ceremony on May 31st and share some of the anecdotal research?

    Fascinating stuff!



  2. Tony Dowling
    Tony Dowling says:

    I agree Barbara, leaders are grown, and its all about choices as you (and I) have said.
    Couple of queries for you though… You’re example of being handy at Lacrosse and passably adept at Tennis aren’t the same as the point I make about us not being able to become PRO sports stars surely?
    And equally, I am talking about REAL leaders here, the stand out, universally accepted top of the tree leaders, not your common or garden variety!
    Do you see? The piece is about the very top percentage in business (or sport) and I genuinely think we all accept we can’t achieve these standards in sports, yet expect to be able to do so in business
    Thats the question I am particularly concerned with here!
    What do you think?

  3. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Hi Tony – I see what you’re saying – so what’s a REAL leader? Now that one has me flummoxed! What about the very REAL leaders that you and I don’t know about and are making a real difference through their leadership in a local community project or whatever? You see in my book Tony – really good and real leadership is of many forms – not just about those individuals that you or I or the world happen to hear about via the media, FTSE 100 etc.

    I think that is a really important point – just because someone in a leadership role has a public profile (perhaps because of the area in which they are known – sports, politics, big business) does not make them a “stand out” leader or a better leader in my books than the individual we don’t know or don’t hear about who is a fantastic leader and has fantastic leadership skills (but are simply not in the public eye).

    I believe it is vital we challenge the assumption / belief that the leaders who we hear about or who are CEOs or senior politicians are the “stand out” leaders – they are simply leaders who are in the media.

    If we don’t challenge that assumption / belief then we will stay where we are with the major emphasis on “other people lead, its not my responsibility”.

    Hence the mantra “I am a leader” – to change beliefs!

    Does that make sense?


    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      I completely agree that some leaders aren’t recognised by the majority yet are truly effective, and certainly recognised by those they ‘serve’. Thats why I think the Leading Wales Awards that you run are so important, recognition is the first step to improving and supporting these leaders.
      I also agree that leadership is this context comes in many forms, not just the boardroom or the sport field.
      However, even if its by declaration of the stakeholders involved, we recognise amongst us those that we ‘naturally’ look up to.
      That, in my experience, doesn’t come out of a book, or from a course, or can even be provided by a top coach. At the same time, if you have those qualities, these things will no doubt improve your effectiveness
      The point being I guess, some people have it, and some don’t, and I am saying that its only in business that the ones that don’t have it feel that can compete with those that can!
      (By the way, I don’t like the term ‘stakeholder’, always makes me think of the villagers chasing Dracula around!)

  4. Jodi Stuart
    Jodi Stuart says:

    What about taking it back to basics and establishing the definition of a leader and the difference if there is one of a manager? If I use your reference to ‘sales managers and finance directors’ managing ‘us’ regardless as to whether it is one of their strengths or not. In my opinion they do just that, manage us, our day to day tasks, holiday requests, targets etc. Then the reference to ‘sports’ professionals as leaders, something we aspire to be. Maybe classing those in management does not mean they automatically qualify to be filed in the ‘leadership’ category. I’ve only ever come across two people in my career that I would class as leaders. The two said leaders have inspired me by their work ethic, knowledge, commitment, drive, ambition, tenacity the list is endless. I’ve worked for a variety of companies and managers, yet I can only think of two that ‘when I grow up I want to be just like them!’ So maybe signing up to ‘leadership school’ doesn’t mean you leave as a leader but actually a manager (albeit with varying levels of success)!

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      Hey Jodi! Welcome to the blog. I’d agree there is a distinct difference between leaders and managers. And its often the case that managers aspire to be leaders. And again, often unsuccessfully. I think I might well write my next article on what does constitute a great leader, there seems to be so many different perspectives, the conversation should be fascinating!

  5. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Hi Jodi – interesting! I don’t believe leadership or leading happens in a management vacuum or that management happens in a leadership vacuum. I believe strongly that everyone in whatever role is partly managing and partly leading and that for different scenarios sometimes there is more of one than the other and for different roles there is more of one than the other. So some individuals do more leading and others do more managing – but everyone does a mixture of both.

    Take M&S and today’s announced profit fall – CEO on TV is paying attention to managing the reputation and confidence of investors in the way he responds to the interviewer but is leading by being out there, visible, projecting calm confidence. He has a clear leadership role, requiring leadership skills but he has to deliver on his role by also paying attention to management issues (and I don’t mean he micro manages!).

    Trying to summarise my key points, I believe that:
    a) being a leader in the public eye does not mean that individual is a better leader or has better leadership skills than one who leads in a role that has no publicity attached
    b) that all roles, at home and work, are a mixture of leading and managing and possibly we create unhelpful challenges by defining some roles (and therefore people) as “management” or some as “leaders”
    c) that workplace / organisational structures require that some individuals do more leading than managing but their leading is done in the context of what can be realistically managed and their management is done in a way that ensures they also contribute to leading
    d) that we each have the capacity to show leadership and to lead, and it is about accepting our individual responsibility to contribute to home, work or leisure projects, making a choice to do so and being willing to hone our skills through experience, reflection and applying what we have learnt.

  6. newbon
    newbon says:

    Its a great question and I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer but I don’t buy into the whole leaders are born concept however I do like the idea that they are grown given the right stimuli. If they are simply born that way, then why do so many companies invest in talent management and development strategies…is it simply to identify those who are suitable to lead? As Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner point out, there are certain common traits that successful leaders have, but that does not mean that you cannot learn these skills as you progress.

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      There’s no doubt that leaders can be made more effective through training mentoring coaching etc. I am trying to make an impossible point I guess, that people have to have a certain something, an X factor if you like, before they can be taught? At least those at the very top, the top 1%. That was the distinction I was trying to make. Not your common or garden variety of sport star or leader, the true pinnacle people
      ‘I don’t know the answer’ was what I was saying, but it makes for a great conversation all the same!

  7. helen
    helen says:

    I don’t have the time to leave a detailed response at this moment but this discussion is food for thought. There are people at the top of organisations not because they are great leaders but because they have put a lot of work in to develop a business and taken whole control.. They have not necessarily lead people to develop that organisation and will only get so far… Leadership is about empowering others to grow a business so that everyone in that business develops and is as happy as the people served by that business. I believe that people are born with definitive personalities which determine extrovert or, introvert personalities. However, I believe that it is also life experiences and how these are perceived and reflected on shape a persons perception of life and how they deal with that. This may be that they take the lead or fall into line with others or reject authority.
    A persons life is an experience and journey and always a learning curve. Those who recognize that listening, being open and reflective of their life and that of other people and their opinions will grow and prosper. If they aspire to be leaders they will endeavor to learn how they need to do this….

  8. Tony Dowling
    Tony Dowling says:

    Hi Helen! I’d completely agree with the bottom half of your comment 🙂 However, let me challenge your thinking for a moment on the beginning? If people are at the top of organisations, aren’t they leaders by default? They may not be to our liking as leaders, but they are leaders nonetheless? And again, it may be beneficial to an organisation to develop and empower its people, but many businesses don’t have soft measures for those sorts of things in place, and their leaders can still be hugely effective in terms of the the organisations other objectives?
    I always find conversations like these becoming skewed one way or the other, and other elements creeping in, like what is a ‘good’ or as Barbara says ‘real’ leader.
    Thanks very much for your comment Helen, really valuable