The age-old question of whether leaders are born or made can be debated until the cows come home — it makes great dinner party conversation too.
For decades, scholars have researched this mind-boggling question, while CEOs have had this query on their minds. Why does it matter if leaders are born or made after all?
It is an important question, especially for those who aspire to head teams or companies, be the face of a movement, or help others achieve greatness.
For people in front-line positions who are responsible for the hiring, firing and promoting, the question is “Who has the right mix of ingredients in them to lead?”, or “Who do we invest in and what potential do we see in them?”
If we see great technical talent in an individual, does that mean they would serve as an effective head of that department? Being a subject expert does not necessarily mean that anyone will be a great leader of people.
Often, employees get promoted for their technical skills, which they probably love and enjoy, but leading others is a totally different ball game. Being a great footballer does not always lead to being a great team coach.
To determine whether leaders jump into the world well-chiseled or whether they hone their skills to be effective, we need to be clear about how we define a leader.
Leadership is usually synonymous with some form of romanticism: images of great leaders stir up wistful images of men and women who lead a revolution, social change, or innovation in any field.
However, everyday leadership, as crucial as it is, is not so earth-shattering. Leadership means different things depending on the context.
London School of Economics and Political Science assistant professor of management Connson Chou Locke says: “A leader that emerges among a group of peers is the type of leader that is born.
Whether someone will perform effectively in a leadership position is dependent on the context, the type of job, and the person’s ability to develop leadership skills. This cannot be predicted by their traits.”
In his article on ‘How Leadership Gurus Define Leadership’, George Ambler, executive partner at Gartner Executive Programmes in South Africa, categorises leadership into the following areas:
Leadership as Influence
This is where leadership is a process of influencing others with the ability to build relationships and influence people’s behaviour to achieve that vision. John Maxwell supports this theory, and adds: “Leadership is influence — nothing more, nothing less.”
Leadership as Change
Change is central to effective leadership: the greater the change, the greater the need for leadership.
This perception requires the leader to develop future direction and influence people to move towards the vision to achieve a shared goal.
Leadership as Service
This proposes that effective leaders act from the desire to be of service to others.
Servant leadership begins with the natural desire to serve and then a conscious choice to lead in a way that enriches the lives of individuals and builds better organisations.
Leadership as Character
This is the recognition that without character and integrity, people will not trust the leader and without trust, leaders cannot influence others to follow them on a journey of change.
Leadership as Development
A number of definitions of leadership focus on the responsibility of the leader to grow and develop others into leaders. They highlight the importance of knowing and expressing who you are as a leader.
These definitions recognise the need for the personal development of the leader and their teams so they are able to effectively deal with the hurdles of change brought about by a challenging vision.
What is your definition of leadership? What does it mean to you in your role today? Just looking at the list above shows that there is no single definition of leadership. It is deeply personal and born out of personal passion and sense of purpose.
Leadership is a conscious choice one makes, with a deep-rooted desire to make a difference in any particular field.
For businesses that want to know whether to invest in developing their leaders, first invest in finding out what their passion is, and how that aligns to the impact the business wants to have.
So are leaders born or made? What do you think?