Are Leaders Born or Made?

Many people ask me if leadership can be a learnt skill or whether it’s an innate quality that someone is born with – the age-old question of whether leaders are born or made? I’ve given this considerable thought over my years in leadership and management roles while also observing skills and qualities in others. Before I provide a response, I will tell you a story.  This is a true story from my childhood and the first leadership experience that I can recall.

I was just seven years old, we hadn’t long sold our house as my parents had decided that they hadn’t come all the way from England to live in a western Sydney suburb.  They wanted to experience and explore the great land down under and not be tied to the same routine and mundane life that they had in England and found themselves quickly settling into in their new home.  Hence they sold the family home and bought a 30-foot caravan and a dual cabin truck to tow it with. What a sight it was, the truck was an old railway maintenance vehicle and had been repainted cobalt blue, the caravan was cream with a brown and yellow stripe along its side. Together they were a monstrosity that only their owners could love and love it we did – this was our new home.  Before we could leave on what became a three-year adventure (you will read more on this in future blogs), there were several things that needed to be sorted out, including selling and storing furniture, and setting up the caravan and annex with all the comforts to make it truly home for the family of four and two cats.

While they prepared to leave Sydney, we found ourselves in a caravan park in a busy western Sydney suburb.  My younger sister and I were enrolled in a local school as my mother was very conscious of our education and insisted that if even for a few weeks, some schooling was better than none.  During this time, the school prepared itself for its annual sports carnival.  Now everyone has a different view on these type of school events.  For some, it’s exciting and an opportunity to test their athletic ability against their peers, for others it’s a day away from the classroom and a bit of fun and for others still it’s a nightmare with fears of competition and potential ridicule.  For me, I turned this experience into an opportunity.

After school on the day that the sports carnival was announced, I eagerly came home to the caravan park, and got together a group of the local children to start a training program in readiness for the school carnival.  I even roped in children from the caravan park who went to different schools, telling them that we needed their support, that it would be fun and that the activities were good for them.  I set up a short distance race track to practice our running on, divided up the kids into different age groups and pit them against each other.  I had not long received my first digital watch and I used this to time them on their races and gave them feedback on how well they improved to their previous race.   At the end of the afternoon, I pleaded with my Mum to provide an icy pole to the best athlete of the training session – which she did.  I set them all training homework, which involved running and we agreed to meet up after school the following day to try out some other activities.

Now looking back, a couple of things were going on here, firstly my seven-year old self’s natural leadership traits kicked in.  My mother always said I was the instigator and organiser or things, something I still do for my family without giving a second thought to. Secondly,  in my short experiences of schooling, I had become one of those kids who loathed sports carnivals or similar activities, mainly because I wasn’t athletic and I hated losing and hated feeling inadequate. Largely subconsciously, to take some control over the situation, I worked with and supported other children so that they might succeed and I could share in their success.  This way when I would inevitably lose my compulsory “age” race, I could still be happy from other’s winnings.

There is more to the story, but back to question on whether leaders are born or made.  In my experience starting from the childhood memory above, consolidated with 29 years of experience being lead and leading others, supplemented by my leadership learnings and education, I respond with the following points:

  • Leaders can be born, having a natural tendency to coordinate, coerce and attract followers but this does not necessarily make them an effective or a “good” leader. Think about the likes of Hitler and other worldly dictators.
  • Most of the born, natural leaders will need supplementary training, coaching and support to become “good” and fully effective leaders.
  • Leaders can be made with training alone; in fact, most HR professionals believe this to be true of most people. However, these leaders may find leadership unnatural even tiring, they will need to work hard at it and may find themselves feeling outside of their comfort zone.

Perhaps the questions around whether leaders are born or made is almost irrelevant?  Perhaps the question should be what makes a person an effective leader?  More on this next time.

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