Leaders: Born or Made?

The purpose of leadership is to create more leaders, not more followers.

Early in my business career the big question being asked in MBA classes and academic circles was whether leaders are born or made.  Those who believe leaders are born cite examples of kids at school who stood out above the rest, having a high degree of charisma, determination, persuasive ability and natural talent. The “leaders are born” theory was most evident on the sports field as well as in the school yard.  At a young age a few individuals displayed raw leadership qualities.  We called them “natural leaders”.

For several decades, especially during the hectic 80’s and 90’s, management gurus wrote extensively about “charismatic” leadership, citing example after example of strong-willed, outspoken,  charismatic individuals at the top of major corporations.  They rose to the top and were able to build successful organizations largely due to their charismatic personality traits.

After over 35 years of working with senior executive teams and consulting on culture change, turnarounds and strategy execution, for me the case is closed.  Leaders are made, not born.  And it takes more than just a few personality traits to make effective leaders. There are lots of people with the title of leader (boss, CEO, Chairman, President, Prime Minister, etc.) who are extremely ineffective leaders.  Many have huge incomes, control over vast budgets and thousands of people, but over the long run wind up making their companies, and their countries, worse off, not better.

Building effective leaders is a complex task that requires at least three critical ingredients; education, purpose and the ability to enroll others.

The first ingredient in building effective leaders is an education on how to lead. Leadership education can be structured or unstructured and often comes in the forms of leadership training, mentoring by those who have been there before, and personal coaching.  In our western society the education of a leader is often less formalized than in societies with hereditary expectations concerning leadership.  Besides a good basic education, future leaders are taught by special tutors about the expectations and obligations of leadership, as well as trained in special leadership “rituals”.

Consider Prince William of the United Kingdom, potential heir to the throne.  He went to St. Andrews for a general education but also received specific mentoring and coaching in his role as the future leader of his country.  And his military education at Sandhurst also focused on leadership development.  In fact, militaries the world over offer not only specific skill training in the craft of war and related activities, but also have developed focused leadership education programs designed to turn out effective officers and military leaders.

But education alone is not sufficient to create effective leaders.  A leader must have a purpose that is bigger than themselves, that includes the welfare and wellbeing of others. A purpose that includes a vision of a better tomorrow. Many dictators and heads of state have the narrow purpose of enriching themselves at the expense of others.  Consider the billions of dollars siphoned off by Robert Mugabe from his country, Zimbabwe, leaving himself enriched and his country one of the poorest on earth.

Leaders are often made by the challenges they take on, by the size of the problems they choose to tackle.  The bigger the problem, the greater the leadership development opportunity. A smart person solving a problem alone is not leadership.  Often the role of a leader is to help a group of people solve a problem that they haven’t been able to solve.  The leader applies his or her leadership skills to the challenge and helps the group organize and focus their collective talents.  A leader will also help the group believe in themselves and their capabilities in a way that inspires them with confidence and a “can do” attitude.

Inherent in the ability to solve big challenges is the third ingredient to building effective leaders. The ability to enroll others in a worthy cause or challenge. This is often the point at which many potential leaders fail.  They fail to enroll and engage others.  Demanding, ordering or goading others into working on a given task is not effective in the long run as they may apply their labors, but rarely their hearts and minds. Slave labor rarely creates breakthrough solutions to big challenges.  Successful leaders use motivational and influencing skills as well as the ability to discover and fan the dormant and inherent desires of their followers.

Today the world is crying out for leaders and leadership.  We won’t have many to choose from until we get serious about developing leaders.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E | john@johnrchildress.com      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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1 Response to Leaders: Born or Made?

  1. Dan O'Neill says:

    Hi John, in our Leadership Development sessions I often talk to new “Leaders” about how organizations appoint Leaders but only staff and positive results recognize Leaders.

    This is always a great kickoff for a debate and recognition on what it takes to be a great Leader and not just be someone filling in a Leadership role.

    Great posts.




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