Leadership: Are leaders born or made?

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Are leaders born or made?

This is a discussion that’s gone on for centuries. In my experience most of the people who ask it are really asking, “Can I become a leader?” In almost every case, the answer to that one is, “Yes.”

I can be sure of that because we know the answer to the born or made question. Leaders are sort-of born. Leaders are always made.

What “born leaders” usually are

Most of the people we describe as “born leaders” are leaders who developed their skills when we couldn’t see them. Skill development is the name of the game, but there are still some things you need to show up with.

What you must have to become a good leader

You have to be smart enough. You don’t have to be the smartest person on the planet or even the smartest person on the team, but you do have to be smart enough to get the job done.

You have to have enough stamina. This varies a lot from situation to situation, but you have to have the reserves of energy you need for when times get tough and the hours get long.

The human personality usually jells when you’re a young adult. After that, not much that’s basic changes. You’re likely to succeed in a leadership role if you can answer “yes” to the following.

  • Do you like helping others succeed?
  • Are you willing to make decisions?
  • Are you willing to confront others about behavior or performance?
  • Do you have grit?

The answers to those questions are behavioral, not intellectual. How you behave, what you say and do, determines the answer, not what you think or what you wish.

Leaders are always made

No matter what kind of gifts you show up with, leadership is something you learn to do. It’s an apprentice trade. Books and courses will help you, but you’ll learn about seventy percent of your lessons on the job and another twenty percent from people, mostly bosses, mentors, and coaches.

If you want to become as good a leader as you can be, take control of your own development. Analyze your strengths and weaknesses. Develop a plan for improvement. Get feedback about how you’re doing and critique your own performance. Reflect.

Seek out opportunities to grow and develop. Some will be scary. Most include a risk of failure. Repeat this mantra: “Nothing is a failure if I learn from it.” The truth is you can’t grow without risk or without pain.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Learning to lead is a lifelong process. Take control of that process.

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What People Are Saying

Jim Bearden   |   26 Jun 2014   |   Reply

As usual, you nailed it, Wally. I especially like your contention that “Leaders are Always Made”. Raw material doesn’t spontaneously transform into finished products. In fact, many such transformations require extreme measures. The willingness to risk failure–something most people see as an extreme measure–is a characteristic of those committed to transforming their leadership potential into leadership effectiveness. Thanks for this outstanding post.

Wally Bock   |   26 Jun 2014   |   Reply

Thank you for the kind words, Jim.

Subha Balagopal   |   30 Jun 2014   |   Reply

Great insights and advice! For me, the third and fourth questions you pose in your bulleted list (Are you willing to confront others about behavior or performance? Do you have grit?) are the most challenging. They are the actions that are required to enact the the first two questions about wanting to help others succeed and being willing to make decisions. While it is satisfying to learn and grow in these areas, I know they will keep me in apprenticeship mode throughout my career! Thanks for coaching from a distance!

Wally Bock   |   01 Jul 2014   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind words, Subha. I think you’ve said something important. I’ve heard that sentiment attributed to an array of people including Aristotle, Marshal Saxe, and Maya Angelou. They all suggest that courage is the first of the virtues because it makes all the others possible.