The essay refutes the view that leaders are born not made, and seeks to establish through valid arguments, illustrations and documented evidence that leaders are actually made and not born
Folklore has lulled us into believing that some people are born leaders while others are not.
Regardless of tribe, ethnicity or race, most people can trace their origins back to a monarchical or feudal system where the offspring of the reigning family found themselves thrust into leadership positions regardless of their inclinations to rule or not. To further impress this upon our collective psyches, the legends of such royal ancestors are interwoven with thrilling notions of romantic adventure and grandeur, and we unwittingly find ourselves mentally acquiescing to the untruth that some people are born to lead while others are destined to merely follow.
History has however proven otherwise; leaders are made not born. The fall of monarchical systems of government occurred slowly but surely over centuries, as it became apparent to all that leadership is to be earned, and is not a birthright. Nobility was no longer a question of bloodline but of courage, strength of character and the ability to motivate your peers to follow you in achieving a common goal. Some critics would argue that the most prominent features of leaders such as courage, charisma and strength are personality traits which are inherited and cannot be taught (Colleen 2012).
Research has however shown that the human personality is extremely malleable, and under the right tutelage and exposure to carefully calibrated exercises, leadership attributes can be developed by anyone who is willing to invest the required amount of time and energy to achieve these results (Parks 2005). It has also been argued that another key requirement for leadership is pleasant good looks which are an inherited feature (Colleen 2012).
This is however an unsubstantiated assumption and perhaps is only relevant in the realm of politics where the ability to assume an office is often indicative of a strong political machinery backing you, and not your ability to lead and motivate. True leadership is not an office but a lifestyle. Mahatma Ghandi may not have qualified as a prospect for GQ’s cover page but he is undisputedly one of the most influential leaders in modern history.
Perhaps it would be instructive to clarify who a leader is before proceeding further. ‘A leader is a person who influences a group of people towards the achievement of a certain goal’ (Merriam-Webster n. . ). Leaders exist in almost every facet and sphere of life we may choose to examine; the family unit, schools, religious organizations, business institutions, and states.
The manner in which they influence people varies from individual to individual. One of the areas which has witnessed the most review and analysis is the business environment, where the efficacy of a leader could determine whether an organisation thrives or goes under, and with it the fates of staff, shareholders and other stakeholders whose livelihoods are inexorably linked to the business.
We will therefore restrict our review to the attributes of a successful business leader and an analysis of whether such traits are inherited or cultivated. One key trait which most of the literature written on great business leaders agree on as a required characteristic is excellent communication skills. A leader must be able to clearly communicate his vision in compelling terms that will motivate his team to follow him into the thick of the fray, be it the floor of the New York Stock exchange or into the last quarter of the year where the sales figures will determine whether the organisation sinks or swims.
Is the ability to communicate convincingly an inborn trait? History would lead us to believe otherwise. According to folklore, Demosthenes was the most famed of Greek orators whose first attempt at public speaking earned him the derision of his peers for his efforts (Horne 2007). Through dedication and the proper tutelage, he overcame a speech handicap and eventually became a voice that all of Greece respected. In the modern world, the abundance of voice coaches and public speaking training material points to the fact that excellent communication skills can be learnt.
In addition, as organisations continue to grow in size and staffing, an increasing amount of the intra-organisational communication is written and no longer verbal. CEOs communicate their vision and the company’s direction to the entire staff via written emails. Though some critics may maintain that good communication skills are inherited, it is unlikely that even the strongest proponents of this view will believe that the ability to type concise emails is an inborn talent.
Another important leadership trait is passion; passion is infectious and galvanizes those around you into pouring their energy into the goals you have set. It is obviously apparent that some people are naturally more passionate than others and this is inarguably an inborn personality trait.
As a leader however, you are not required to be passionate about every single thing; you however must be passionate about your job, your organization and the objectives you have set. In the book ‘Who Am I; The Quest for Entrepreneurial Identity’, Charles Y. Murnieks states ‘… entrepreneurial passion is significantly related to the setting of proximal goals’ (Murnieks 2008). This suggests that any leader who is fiercely committed to a goal inadvertently becomes passionate about it.
Goal setting and focus is a trait that can definitely be taught and is the precursors to the passion that a great leader needs. On the other hand, being a passionate person in a general sense is no guarantee of great leadership. On the contrary, passion that is not built on predetermined goals may lead to emotional decisions which could destroy an organization.
A third important leadership trait is courage. In the course of running an organisation, a leader must have the courage to take decisions that could either make or break that organization. Whether it is choosing the sectors to invest businesses capital in or selling off an ailing subsidiary, his courage will constantly be put to test. He must also have the courage to face his staff with candour and give unpleasant feedback to an employee who may not be pulling his weight.
A study by Daniel Goleman surprisingly revealed that fearlessness, amongst others, is often an inherited trait (Goleman 1986). It appears that some children are born with a higher threshold of fear and risk aversion than others. An insensitivity to fear however does not necessarily make a courageous leader.
In the article ‘The Meaning of Courage’, Richard Zinbarg states ‘In my view, however, we cannot be courageous or strong in situations in which we have no fear or anxiety whatsoever’ (Zinbarg 2010). Courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc. despite anxiety or fear’ (Rachman 1978).
This thus means that the quality of courage which one needs to have to be an effective leader is not ingrained at birth, but rather is developed over time by the habit of constantly facing ones fears. Many leadership training organisations teach this trait with rock climbing or mountain climbing exercises, which will gradually help the students face down their fears and take challenges head on.
The military also recruit young men and women into their ranks and through trainings, exercises and exposure to real armed conflict situations, gradually shape them into courageous combat ready soldiers. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the American people had until recently only voted ex-military political candidates into office; they naturally believed that these men would have cultivated the traits of strength and fearlessness during their time in the military. Integrity is another important attribute of a good leader.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines integrity as the ‘firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values (Merriam-Webster n. d. ). Are some people born with integrity whilst others are born with a propensity for deceit and inconsistency? Research shows that children growing up are prone to adopt the moral code and values which their models exhibit from birth to about the age of 7, when they begin to observe and appraise the results of actions on subjects as well as the attendant repercussions.
They then begin to form their own value system which continues to be shaped throughout their lives (Thomas 1993). Integrity is a learned attribute and leaders can therefore not be born with it; it is an acquired trait. A review of the biographies of great leaders often refer to defining moments in their lives where experiences occurred that shaped and defined their moral codes for the rest of their lives. One of the greatest examples of this is the story of President Abraham Lincoln, fondly known as ‘Honest Abe’ by the people of America.
He exposed himself at a very early age to character moulding literature that extolled the virtues of integrity and individual struggle, thereby internalising the accounts of other great men and consciously adopting their moral codes (Carwardine 2003). The mere fact that peer pressure, lack of a proper family structure and environmental/ community factors have been identified as three of the main contributing factors to teen crime (Muhammad 2008) establish that integrity or the lack of it is a learned behaviour and not an inherited trait.
This is one of the reasons why juvenile corrective authorities always seek foster parents for adolescents whom they perceive to be in danger of being corrupted by their society. The human race has made exceptional leaps in the past century on numerous frontiers; medicine, law, science, technology, and most of the other endeavours we have focused our mental energy and resources on. In the business world, the number of registered companies (either with physical or virtual offices) is rising quickly and with it the portfolio and profile of its owners and managers.
The leaders of these advancements and breakthroughs did not let questions of their genetic predisposition to leadership deter them from achieving the feats they have accomplished. Proposing that leadership is a birthright and therefore the exclusive right of a privileged few would be encouraging scores of people to abdicate their natural duty of being the best version of themselves they possibly can, encouraging them to ignore the plethora of opportunities to lead and make a difference, encouraging them to give up at the first sign of difficulty.
The last and arguably the most important trait of a great leader is faith; faith in his ability to lead his team and actually make a difference. It is only by understanding that great leaders are made and not born that we can have the faith to put ourselves through the gruelling process it takes to shape our minds and bodies, and thereby become the exceptional leaders that we all can be.
Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln. London, 2003. Colleen, Sharen. “Leaders are Born not Made. ”
Thinking is Hard Work, 2012. Goleman, Daniel.
“New York Times. ” New York Times, 2 December 1986. Horne, C. F. Heritage History. History Curriculum Homeschool, 2007. Merriam-Webster. “Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. ” http://www. merriam-webster. com/dictionary/integrity. Muhammad, Ali. Youth Crime;
Causes and Remedies. 2008. Murnieks, Charles Y. Whom Am I; The Quest for Entrepreneural Identity. 2008. Parks, Sharon Daloz. “Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World. ” 2005:
Rachman, Stanley. Fear and Courage. 1978. Thomas, Laurence. Morality and Psychological Development. Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1993. Zinbarg, Richard. The Meaning of Courage. 2010.
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