Made Not Born: 3 Truths About Leadership

Leadership born

People have often asked, “Are leaders born or made?”

This is not a new debate, not a new opening discussion question, and not a new title for an article or section in a book. Wise writers often hedge with a “surely both” response, noting that there are certainly God-given qualities in leaders and yet also noting that there has been development and maturing along the way.

Perhaps the debate began when Thomas Carlyle formulated the “great man theory” to describe leaders who radically shaped and impacted society. He argued that leaders with incredible leadership prowess and qualities rise to the top and impact others around them. The theory, developed in the 1840s, gave the sense that great leaders are born and society is formed around them. If you ascribe to the “great man theory,” then one is either born a great leader or not. Critics responded that there is no real data to support the “great man theory” and that leaders are made by societies more than leaders form societies. Leaders are products of their environments, of the people surrounding them and nurturing them.

So some believe leadership is primarily about nature, and others primarily about nurture. While I also hedge and say both when asked the question, if I am pressed to choose between the two, I believe leaders are made and not born. Here are three reasons leaders are made and not born:

1. There is not one type of leader.

If leadership is primarily about nature, then researchers could plot out the right mix of communication skills, intellect, strategic thinking, and exact spot on the chart between introversion and extroversion to identify the next “great man” or “great woman.” But we don’t do that because we all have seen effective leaders that are very different from each other. Effective leaders have different personalities and skills. While all great leaders influence people with effectiveness, how they influence people varies greatly.

Some great leaders are extroverts, while others are introverts. Some great leaders are administrative and obsessed with maximizing value through managing details, while others are more strategic and maximize value by leveraging people toward great opportunities.

The characteristics given at birth impact the type of leader someone is, whether relational, strategic or administrative. But it is the development of a leader that impacts his or her effectiveness. While nature impacts how one leads, nurture impacts the effectiveness of one’s leadership.

2. Leadership characteristics are one.

Most leaders receive too much credit for the good things that take place during their tenure and too much blame for the bad. A leader’s qualities surely impact the effectiveness of his or her tenure, but so does the context of leadership and the people within the context. Leaders lead within a specific context, and the context impacts the perceived effectiveness of their leadership. And a great leader is not a great leader alone. Leaders who are recognized for “great leadership” are always surrounded by teams of competent and committed people.

3. Development is powerful.

I have seen the impact of leadership development. I have seen how leaders are developed when they put themselves in overwhelming situations, humbly seek feedback, read and learn, and practice and seek instruction. I have also seen very “talented people” who are lazy and lack passion and conviction. Over time, those who develop themselves are the ones people look to as their leaders.