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Are Leaders Born Or Made: An Introspective Paradox

The culture of continuous learning should be inherent and proper coaching, mentoring and rigorous leadership building exercise can enhance the overall productivity of organization

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Scottish scholar Thomas Carlyle with term “Great Man’’ coined to his credit espoused born type of leaders. As per his notion some people are born with leadership ability like heroic traits which makes them credible to take up leadership position early in life. Dr. Elliot Jacques renowned clinical psychologist believes that cognitive ability is set at birth which is equivalent to IQ innate in nature and also determines the intellect. Raw intellect without leadership training can’t take an individual along. Surrounding, environmental and life experience related factors inhibit or facilitate the leadership potential.

Copious evidence suggests that leaders are born to some extent with cognitive ability and dispositional tendencies that make them good fit for a specific role. But the major proportion comes from the life based experiences and development efforts at nascent stages. On the Born notion of a leadership the attributes like emotional stability, Intelligence, adaptability, conscientiousness, extroversion are the building block of effective leadership .These qualities ingredient for success across nations, sectors and organization level.

On the made side of leadership, in born characteristics make it easier and natural experience shape a repertoire leadership competencies. These include communication skills – Oral and written, social adeptness and ability to inspire others. Competencies are measured by interviews and well structured simulations. Modern research confirms that the leadership potential can be enhanced through coaching session, delivering inspirational speech and performance review feedback through assigning set of projects, and solving case studies.

There is also competency leadership building process by attending a business programme at reputed institution as an extension to formal education, workshops to expedite the leadership development, through appropriate mentorship and beset oneself around professionals of high caliber.

Dr Abraham Zalesnick former professor at Harvard Business School made a compelling discovery through his research on born or made type of leadership. He broached on the subject with observations and recommendations. According to him life experiences play a dominant role in developing future leaders. He categorizes individual into two personality types. The first one is once born type and second one is twice born. Once born leaders have sailed through life without hurdles, got the required support from family for growth and the adjustments in life has been somewhat peaceful since their birth. These individuals become leaders through societal factors that favours their growth through appropriate support system and their intense desire to maintain status quo by being eclectic is rampant.

The twice born leaders are individuals whose life ambition derives from professional separateness .They under go through constant struggle to become impeccable, constantly face difficult times and have to put an enormous effort to attain a sense of order. High level of aspiration lead them to focus on the personal and professional development and this forces them for social and physiological change .It is this crucible from which their leadership emerge constantly trying to drive change and attain goals. They are not preordained for success from birth but attain it by relentlessly shaping the future. Take the example of Late Dhirubhai Ambani, Founder of Reliance Industries .He is an exemplary case of self made twice born leader who made most of his fortune through his own efforts inspite of born in poverty and not so well off education. His constant ambition to make a difference and ability to struggle in life against all odd made him a legendary business leader. Most of his success in life came from the experience of learning during difficult time.

There is an important metrics that differentiates between born leaders with innate qualities to Made leaders called Emotional Intelligence (EQ) .This idea was pioneered by Prof Daniel Goleman . Today about eighty percent of successful leadership is dependent on ability of recognize emotions of self and others and regulate them. While IQ to a great extent is set at birth but EQ is something that can be learned which is a trait of Made type of leaders. In today’s precarious world the effective professionalism coupled with personal success comes from experiences one has gone, ability to learn from experiences, empathy for others and self awareness .These important element of emotional intelligence suggests that leaders are made and leadership is a journey.

By critically analyzing how top leaders perform can help an individual to become better leader. In an organization if the top managers believe that leaders are born rather made then it affects the culture of the organization. They may embrace totalitarian, dominant and authority focused leadership style and is considered deleterious for organisation .In an organization when C level executive feel that leaders are made then the company culture would be more collaborative and team oriented and such organization may deliver good results over a period of time.

Leadership falls into three bell curve categories. The first category has a group of indeed a born leaders who do exceptionally well with cognitive ability and their performance improves constantly with training. The middle curve represents set of people with made leadership qualities .These people start with modicum full innate leadership ability and in course of time become good leaders with external environment factors like professional qualification, training and mentoring .The bottom 10 – 15 per cent comprise of those who don’t have innate wiring or learning capability and can’t improve to become leaders. Any sort of training would turn out to be profligate of effort.

An important ingredient for becoming successful leaders is to be really self aware be it mix of born and made type of leaders. Being self aware is a perennial process for authentic development. It also matters the way an individual represents in the world through their actions and experiences by being truly authentic. Moral compass and fulfilling commitments are the two important building blocks of self aware leaders.

There are three important and easy ways to improve self awareness of leaders. Listening, inviting a feedback and becoming a fair witness. A truly self aware leaders are very good listeners who distill the wisdom of people more knowledgeable around them, attending leadership development seminars and using an online media wisely. They also ask mentors ,teachers and friends for a feedback to develop insights about professional and personal growth. One should also be honest and true to self and people around them by reporting their life experiences as accurately as possible.

A group of CEOs were asked about their view on born and made type of leaders. They mentioned that both born and made type of leaders behave participative, team oriented, humane oriented. They are sympathetic and focus on organizational values and accomplishment of goals, vision and mission. The study also shows that making a world a better place to live in is a priority of made type of leaders as compared to born. Couple of psychological studies also proves ambivalent nature of born and made type of leaders and they behave autonomously with traits like self reliant, independent, self sufficient, individualists and at times evasive.

There are example of Steve Jobs , Bill Gates , Michael Dell and Richard Branson supporting born type of leaders. They without formal education or professional training built global companies through life experience and innate capability .On the other hand lets analyze Professional leaders like Jack Welch (GE) , Prof Bill (George) Medtronic and Carlos Ghosn ( Nissan). These extraordinary individuals through Professional training added value for the organization on a global scale and built world class companies. On the mix of born and made side of leadership, Alexander the Great is an exemplary case. He had the genetic traits to be a leader .His leadership potential was further enhanced through education and extraordinary training which made him a world class leader at a very young age.

To conclude regardless whether leaders are born or made and being incisive it should be the priority to enhance the organizations leadership pipeline and the bench strength .The culture of continuous learning should be inherent and proper coaching, mentoring and rigorous leadership building exercise can enhance the overall productivity of organization .There will always be a debate about born leaders and made leaders and with latest metrics like EQ can be a great differentiator. Appropriate mentorship can lead to enhanced job satisfaction, performance levels and organizational commitments.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.




Divakar Prakash

The author is a Strategy Consultant with experience of consulting CEO level executives and key stakeholders in Real Estate , Government, Not for Profit, FMCG and Chemical sectors. Educated at the School of Management ,University of St-Andrews consistently a top ranked institution in Europe at Master's level in business Strategy, Corporate Finance and General Management

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