Are leaders born? Or are they created?
In the medieval ages, it was believed that leadership qualities were a product of birthright. In the 20th century, this view was eclipsed by the more evolved opinion that leadership was, in fact, a product of nurture.
Academic Warren Bennis — the so-called father of modern leadership studies — once stated:
“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”
Famed football coach Vince Lombardi, meanwhile, held a view underscored by his legendary work ethic: “Leaders aren’t born; they are made,” he said. “They are made just like anything else — through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”
That’s the common belief now: leadership is not the result of your genetic makeup or a specific kind of personality, but a collection of skills that can be learned and need to be developed and improved.
Yet, understanding this, another truth comes to light:
Not all those who hold leadership positions are actually good leaders.
And the reason is because they don’t work to improve those tangible skills which make for effective leaders.
I was once employed as a marketing and sales consultant for a diecast collectibles company. My manager there fell into this camp: he was not a skilled leader. He didn’t exhibit the same work ethic he demanded from his employees. He was neither empathetic nor self-aware, and he made no pains to try to be.
It was, all in all, the worst 18 months of my professional career. I terminated my contract early — the only time in my career I didn’t complete an assignment to my satisfaction.
Now, I don’t think this man set out purposefully to be a bad leader. Nobody does.
Poor leaders become and remain ineffective due to a variety of factors:
- They’ve been put into a bad position — usually by being over-promoted into a job they don’t deserve or can’t handle.
- They lack confidence in their own job security, and lash out in their reports at their colleagues as a result, never accepting responsibility or taking ownership, as good leaders do.
- They’ve been managed by poor leaders themselves in the past, and learn over time to mirror those negative traits.
- They lack either self-awareness, empathy, or a sincere desire to become better.
- Great leaders, meanwhile, exhibit the opposite traits.
- They manage positively, coaching employees rather than threatening them.
- They prove open to and grateful for new ideas. They thank and acknowledge their team members for a job well done. They also take responsibility when things don’t go well and aren’t afraid to broach sticky or politically sensitive topics with leadership since it’s part of their job.
- They cultivate a culture of ‘what if’? They encourage their teams to find new and better ways of doing things. They inspire people to be better.
- Finally, they lead by example — and that includes embracing self-development.
I’ve been blessed to work for several leaders who’ve exhibited these skills, including my current CEO at AVL Digital. He, most decidedly, is a leader, and not just a boss or manager.
The difference, ultimately, boils down to what leaders seek to inspire — respect, trust, and hard work — as well as how they inspire it.
The best inspire their employees through active investment in their development, ownership over the results their teams produce, and hard work of their own.
Leaders inspire trust through accountability and investment, in other words.
Bosses, meanwhile, are generally content to simply have people work for them, lending little credence to their need to grow and develop as contributors.
At the end of the day, identifying that difference is important, because it’s only once you understand what being a great leader requires and entails that you can take steps to truly become one yourself.
The question we should all be asking ourselves, then, is not, “Am I a leader?” Rather, it’s, “What kind of leader do I want to become?” Because as Mr. Lombardi understood, leadership is learnt. Not by attending classes, but through deliberate dedication and practice.