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Great Leaders – Born or Made?

Naked Leader Week – 171 (w/c Monday 28 August 2006)

Great Leaders – Born or Made?

This is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. Quite apart from people having different meanings for the term “leader”, some people believe they are born, others believe they are made. And so your answer is up to you – make the choice that serves you best. If you believe leaders are born it may serve you better to believe you were one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Or not.  You decide what helps you best in life.

Or have one of those circular, never-ending debates that can never be resolved. To help you with your side of the argument, I list below the main ‘evidence’ quoted from both ‘sides’…


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Wonderful quote: “I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep” Talleyrand advertisement.

Two up-coming events:

The London Business Forum, in association with The Naked Leader, presents

Leadership, Communications and Change:

An afternoon in conversation with Greg Dyke and Lord Bell –

Insights into managing change, crisis management and leadership:


 How to Build a Business Empire

with Felix Dennis – How Felix and Dennis Publishing got rich, and how you and your company can do the same!





 “We might not like it, but leaders are born and not made. To lead, you need the following traits:

 * a spirit of adventure – the urge to explore, break new ground, challenge the status quo, stand up for what you believe, risk rejection, rebel against authority, innovate.

 * an ability to influence – by example, logical argument, enthusiasm, persistence or painting a visionary picture.

 * an appropriate level of intelligence.

 You can modify your style of influencing a bit, but not totally. A quietly persuasive leader will have difficulty ever being charismatic – some in-born traits here.

 But it’s hard to shift your spirit of adventure very much if you are strongly cautious, conservative or motivated to be accepted by others rather than risk rejection.

 We are either born with a strong rebellious streak or acquire it early in life.

 The same is true of intelligence.

 Earlier theories of leadership rejected the idea that leaders are born because they identified leadership with ability to influence, noting rightly that there are widely differing styles of influence and that people can improve their influencing skills. But the critical leadership trait is the spirit of adventure – a bit like creativity, you might have it in small, rather than large, doses, but you either have it or you don’t.”


 “The assumption is often made that those who lead, do so naturally out of an inborn set of attributes which hardly leave a choice. Leaders are ‘born,’ not ‘made.’ A parallel with musical talent is often drawn – some people very early are known to be able to sing a tune, learn to play an instrument, or even compose original music with apparently very little effort.

 That leadership is a gift, like music, may be obvious, but perhaps the analogy should be pressed a little further. When it is acknowledged that a young person is gifted with musical talent, they are encouraged, sometimes even forced to submit to training so that the gift may be developed for the benefit of all who will listen. At first, only parents and grand-parents delight to hear the fumbling, discordant attempts of the child to play the instrument. However, as skill develops, the audience broadens.

 Much the same should be applied to the development of leadership. The inborn talent is there, but effectiveness in leading waits for the development of needed skill… ‘Born to Lead’ is a correct assessment, let’s just make sure the new-born are well nourished.”


 “In 1910 the first research on leadership was conducted which gave rise to the notion that certain individuals have been born with traits to make them leaders, natural born leaders, and others were not born with those traits. Much research was conducted after 1910 to determine the validity of this idea.

 Currently, Max Weber has identified Charismatic Leadership as a new and emerging theory. Charisma is defined by Websters Dictionary as someone that has “personal magnetism or charge”. Weber essentially stated that those individuals with charm and that are able to attract others to them are leaders.

 Former President Bill Clinton was a spokesperson for the Charismatic Leadership theory, people would be drawn to his voice and actions at all times and he used his charm to attract supporters.”

 Norris University Center / Northwestern University




 “Anyone – absolutely anyone – can be an effective leader. When people generate a compelling challenge for themselves and others – one that points toward a future not previously considered possible – a new kind of leadership becomes achievable. Rather than being a product of the right characteristics, leadership becomes a product of being passionately committed to fulfilling that challenge and that future….

 When the opportunity to make a difference is sufficiently compelling, people willingly risk stepping forward as a leader. Whether mundane or profound, everyone can recall a similar instance. Leadership, therefore, might be ordinary people with extraordinary commitments who are willing to relentlessly take the necessary actions to deliver.

 When people believe passionately in what they are doing, and why they are doing it, they become unstoppable.”

 JPT Online: April 2004,2440,1104_11038_2354946_2367995,00.html

 “Great leaders exhibit nine different kinds of behaviours that enable them to bring out the best in their people. Some of the nine behaviours of leadership listed below involve building participatory teams, some involve using situational management strategies, while others enhance personal resources. Listed separately, the nine behaviours include:

 Developing people.

Being able to influence others.

Encouraging teamwork.

Empowering people.

Using multiple options thinking.

Taking intelligent risks.

Being passionate about work.

Having a strong clear vision.

Stretching one’s personal creativity.

 While many people think leaders are unique, even born to that state of excellence, I have found just the opposite. With proper experiential training, it is possible for people to learn these leadership behaviours.

 In other words, leaders can be developed.”


 “Françoise Morissette and fellow consultant Amal Henein have interviewed 200 leaders from across Canada: executives, entrepreneurs, politicians, civil servants, fundraisers, activists, artists, journalists, athletes, coaches…

 One of the most interesting findings is that only one-third of interviewees feel they were “born to lead” and have an innate interest or ability in leadership. By contrast, two-thirds claim that leadership was “thrust upon them”…

 This breakdown has profound implications on how we view leadership and its development. It certainly flies in the face of the old adage that “leaders are born, not made”. Instead of focusing on how to identify ‘born’ leaders – which is easy enough to do – the question becomes “how do we create conditions so that more people will take on leadership roles?”.

 If the majority of people do not initially see themselves as leaders, then development is key: ‘Nurture’ primes over ‘Nature’.

 Moreover, even the innate leaders stress the importance of development, which enables them to grow in skill and confidence and enhances their ability to adapt to a variety of situations. Both the ‘accidental’ and the ‘born’ leaders agree that leadership development is essentially an organic process. Although a certain amount of planning and goal setting exists, being alert to opportunities and seizing them is paramount because stretching out of one’s comfort zone promotes growth like nothing else.”

 Industrial Relations Centre


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