Leaders: Born or Made?

When I was in B-school pursuing my MBA, one of my professors asked us all a haunting question. “Are leaders born, or are they made”? Before anyone could formulate a response to the question, the professor stated that, given our participation in the program, it was obvious we believed that leaders were made…not just born. Otherwise, most of us were wasting our time in the course of study to which we had dedicated a two-year chunk of our lives. I’ve carried this question with me for years now, and it is only now that I have come up with my own answer…partly because the professor’s conclusion was somewhat vexing to me, but mostly because I needed to make certain of my beliefs prior to taking responsibility for a graduate-level business course this coming Fall.

To begin to formulate my own conclusion on the nature of leadership, I referred back to one of my favorite sayings, given to me by one of my former personal training clients, a retired Lt. Col. from the Army Rangers. He said, “Managers manage things, leaders lead people”. Going back through my coverage of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s views on leadership in “Rule 13, and Rule 14: Leadership at its Core“, published to this weblog on April 19, 2003, I found a similar viewpoint from another well-respected military leader. Management, as an art, or as a science is possible to teach. Things such as common or best practices can be documented, and followed as a procedural check-list, making it possible to train-up a manager. This, however, doesn’t touch on the original question regarding the origin of leaders.

I firmly believe that there a moments in life where we all rise to the call of leadership. Newspapers are full of human interest stories of such leaders of circumstance, where they abandoned reason, and just did what needed to be done…usually inspiring others to follow suit. This makes the academic question regarding leaders being born or made seem somewhat loaded, as everyone of us is a born leader of some sort. Does this answer the question? Well, no. There are actually a couple of different types of leadership that we need to examine to see the full picture.

The first kind of leadership is the circumstantial type seen in the news, wherein, under strain, someone must rise-up to take a leadership role to avoid collective disaster. We will always find leaders in this category, and sometimes the people filling these roles will surprise us. The second kind of leadership is longer-term, and often manifests itself in individuals people will follow to the ends of the Earth. These leaders are charismatic, and often demonstrate a life-long trend of inspiring others towards achieving goals. Sometimes this is a more understated trait, and shows-up as skill at being a team facilitator, or “closer”. However this second kind of leadership shows up in an individual, there is no learning it…it is either there or it is not. Although an individual can be trained to manage, no amount of training in the world will guarantee an ability to make others follow their lead.

Therein lies my answer. Most B-schools are adept at creating managers…people that can process, perform, and organize. Despite the PR claims otherwise, no B-school can take credit for producing inspirational leaders. Leaders are rare, and have qualities that defy definition, making others rally to their causes in inexpiable ways. Some might say that, in a world where there is so little to believe in, we try too hard to see the qualities of leadership in those that have no business leading. I think the first important step is in being able to manage in situations where there is no clear leader, and then, having done that, learn to recognize the individuals we should follow for inspiration.

If your current academic path has you set on becoming a leader, ask yourself, “Am I a leader now”? Perhaps the answer is less important than the realization that, if you are not, you likely will not be once you graduate either. You will, however, be armed with the skills necessary to manage…which in most organizations is more important than being a leader. While leaders innovate, and move the organization out of crisis and on to broader, greener pastures, managers help a company stay the course, and live to fight another day. The value of the manager should never be discounted.

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