Monday, December 27, 2010

Is Leadership Born or Acquired?

This is one of the classic "chicken and egg" type questions.  Is one born a leader?  Can one train to become a leader?  Each side usually has plenty of ammunition.  There are plenty of tremendous young people who show leadership skills at a very young age, including the well-known examples of Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page.  Across history we see examples from political, religious, and business life.  Joan of Arc was very  young when she made a name for herself.  The 14th Dalai Llama was recognized as a leader at age two. Alexander the Great took the throne from his father at 20 and by his death at 32 had conquered countless territories, spreading Hellenistic culture which stayed for the next 1500 years.
not a bad 32 year run
Those who argue that leadership can be learned point out that leadership skills can be trained and improved.  No matter what skills you have as a base, they say, you can learn to be a better leader.  You don't have to look much further than the military or the endless executive improvement programs to see that people think that leadership skills can be learned.  Even Alexander the Great was tutored by Socrates, which couldn't have hurt.
when Socrates spoke- shirtless or not- people listened

In my opinion, leadership is neither exclusively born nor acquired; it is a combination of both.  This is for a few reasons.  First, given that it has not yet been established (been able to be scientifically measured) what proclivities and abilities we bring with us from the moment of conception or birth, and second, everything that we do in our lives has been preceded with the condition of us having been born, then it is impossible to say for certainty how much of one’s leadership abilities come from nature and how much come from nurture.   
some babies do seem smarter than others

That being said, one can point to certain aspects of leadership that can be improved with learning, thus arguing that leadership (at least some components of it) can be acquired.  But one can also point to certain aspects of leadership that are very difficult, if not impossible to learn, thus arguing that certain qualities of leadership tend to be inherent in a person and not acquired through learning.  We’ll look at both of these situations.

Leadership Can be Learned
First, there are a number of aspects of leadership that seem to be able to be learned or acquired given the right amount of effort.  To see what these are, first we turn to the personal traits theory of leadership, which has its roots in the historic “Great man” theory of leadership.  The evolution of leadership theory is one where first it was thought that great leaders were born that way, with a desirable combination of personal traits that accounted for their prowess.  Next this theory gave way to the idea that it was a certain combination of traits that mattered most (this was from a guy named Stodgill).  Now leadership theory contends that it is certain traits in a certain context that is what contributes to the effectiveness of a leader.  

Stodgill identified the important traits for leaders to have as capacity, achievement, responsibility, participation, and status.  Of these, achievement and participation are the two that most easily lend themselves to being learned.   

defined as scholarship, knowledge and athletic accomplishments can be acquired through effort.   

defined as activity, sociability, cooperation, and adaptability, can also be acquired through effort.   

There are some aspects of the others that can be acquired or improved as well, such as verbal facility and judgment (under the category of capacity) and self-confidence (under the category of responsibility).  In addition, emotional intelligence, now widely perceived as a strong component of effective leadership, can also be improved upon to a certain extent.

One is born a Leader
However, there are as many, if not more, aspects of an effective leader that appear to be inherent in one’s emotional and psychological makeup from birth.  Among these are intelligence, alertness, and originality (under “capacity”), dependability, initiative, persistence, aggressiveness, self-confidence, and desire to excel (under “responsibility”), and humor (under “participation”).   

I would add to these drive, emotional awareness and ability to self-monitor and read others, and cognitive ability.  All these traits that have been associated with effective leadership tend to be harder to learn or acquire, and those blessed with a greater natural ability in these areas tend to make better leaders. 
Welsh embodies many of the most desirable
natural leadership traits

Traits: Necessary, but not Sufficient
The conclusion that can be drawn in this debate is that while certain traits that are necessary for good leadership can be learned, acquired, or improved upon through effort, those traits are not sufficient to make the best leader.  In other words, you may need to have certain traits to be a good leader, but just because you have those traits doesn't mean you are a good leader.  

To make the best (most effective) leader requires the presence of traits that tend to be difficult to acquire through effort alone, and as such favor those who naturally exhibit these traits.  If you are born with leadership traits, you are much farther ahead than those who aren't.  Even though everyone can improve their natural talents, if you started out ahead you are more likely to remain that way. 

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