No Image Available

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Great leaders: Can they be made as well as born?


To kick off leadership month, Chris Rogers takes it back to the great nature vs nurture debate. 

I would hope that Training Zone members, and the L&D and HR communities in general, would hold dear to the idea that workplace performance can be improved, that potential can be liberated and accelerated, and that talents are things that can be grown. Yet in a HR magazine online 2010 poll that posed the question 'Is truly authentic and effective leadership something CEOs are born with as opposed to something they can be taught?', 98% of respondents selected the ‘born with’ option. Perhaps we should shake our heads and mark this down to ‘rogue statistics’.

One possible explanation is that a desire to see great leadership – and a recognition that this desire often goes unfulfilled – leads us too easily to believe that iconic figures spring fully-formed among us and that organisations must compete for them: this is one interpretation of the ‘war for talent’. Yet I can’t help but remember Christopher Hitchins, writing in his book 'Letters to a Young Contrarian' about how Martin Luther King ‘plagiarised his doctoral thesis and spent his last night on earth in […] fornication’ and coming to a more optimistic conclusion than the poll respondents: 

"I like the fact that he had feet of clay and a digestive tract and reproductive organs: all human achievement must also be accomplished by mammals and this realisation (interestingly negated by sexless plaster saints and representations of angels) puts us in a useful spot. It strongly suggests that anyone could do what the heroes have done.”

Another possible explanation is that the survey defined leadership as being synonymous with being ‘CEO’. Yet we know that each CEO has been a leader for a number of years, and in a number of roles, before they are promoted. It’s important to realise that leadership takes place at all levels and roles across an organisation; it is not reserved just for the C-Suite. Being a leader is no more a title than it is a birth right.

There are, surely, additional concerns with the argument that talent is a function of genetics. The first is the implicit assumption that talent arrives full-fledged, which somewhat contradicts the billions spent each year on leadership development programmes. Our experience as consultants is not that leaders need to know more to succeed (although they may well do), but that they must learn the behaviours that they will need to be successful. While DNA may contribute, opportunities for experience and development – and a degree of ‘being the right person in the right place at the right time’ – are also critical.

"One may be born with a metaphorical ‘leadership’ silver spoon, but one’s infant jaw is unlikely to encompass the full set of required cutlery."

The second is the implication that talent can be identified and hired without need for further action beyond adoration or obedience. Future success and its sustainability are rarely predicated by previous performance. Ability is a requirement but engagement, learning agility, change aptitude, interpersonal skills and awareness of impact are all necessary ingredients. One may be born with a metaphorical ‘leadership’ silver spoon, but one’s infant jaw is unlikely to encompass the full set of required cutlery.

The world of sport can provide useful lessons here: Consider the case of Matthew Syed, former Olympic champion and his arguments for the factors that deliver truly world-beating performance in his book, 'Bounce': dedication; purposeful practice to engender the ability to perform skills that are critical without the need to focus heavily on their execution; a need and purpose to improve performance (to prevent the onset of a plateau-effect); skilfully delivered feedback and perspective of a coach. Some innate motivation may be derived from a nebulous ‘spark’, but sparks burn neither bright nor long. Nor do they provide sufficient warmth to impact on others. As Syed says, ‘the attainment of excellence is a long-term process’.

To really address the old conundrum, consider what leadership actually is: a complex set of behaviours, and a relationship in which a person accepts responsibility for their own fate and for that of others in relation to achievement of the task. Leadership is not just about what leaders know; it is about how they behave. To optimise their behaviour, they must develop the self-awareness to identify how they can have the greatest impact. What Syed describes is a long-term process, involves individuals in both asking and answering questions, and involves those around them in challenging and supporting them as they master and embed the most effective behaviours in their daily lives.

There is a third argument to consider, and one that should give hope both to organisations and those who’ve hitherto been resigned to their clay feet and their place in life: leopards can change their metaphorical spots. Take, for example, research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman reported recently at the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Blog. The leaders who were judged worse than 90% of their peers in 360 degree feedback assessments were seen as falling short most frequently in the following aspects of leadership: ‘develops others’; ‘collaboration and teamwork’; ‘inspires and motivates others’; ’builds relationships’; ‘practices self-development’. Yet '75% of these leaders were able to change their behaviour enough that their colleagues, subordinates, direct reports, and bosses (who had judged them so harshly before) could readily see improvement'. If leaders can be demonstrated to improve their performance through constructive interventions to become better leaders – not just in terms of knowledge and skills but in behavioural attributes - where does that leave the argument that they cannot be made?

Finally, luck would also seem to be an attribute of a great leader (‘being in the right place’ etc.), but this too is not something we are born with. As golfer Gary Player is attributed as saying, "The harder you practice, the luckier you get.” An accident of birth takes around nine months; becoming a great leader can take a great deal longer, but I believe it’s a position that almost anyone can achieve.

Chris Rogers is managing consultant at ASK Europe plc

No Image Available

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.

Thank you!