Leaders: Born, Made, or Both?

Joan Marques - Ed.D., MBA.
Burbank, California

The question whether leaders are born or made has been asked to a dreadful point by now. And the opinions about the answer to this question remain scattered. The only thing we may know for sure at this point is that leaders can emerge from all walks of life; from all cultures, backgrounds, and in all physical appearances. Leadership is not only determined by the character and capacities of the leader, but definitely also by the followers: if there are no followers, there is no leader.

However, another aspect that is at least as important, but often overlooked, is the influence a situation can have on leadership. Some people may never emerge as a leader, because everything around them runs flawlessly. Most of the world-renowned leaders became great due to crises in their times: the climate demanded action, and they came forward because their particular leadership competence was stimulated.

Does this statement indicate that there is a leader in every one of us? I'd say so! It may just be that some of us never get confronted with circumstances that elicit the leader in us.

The fact that different circumstances require different performances from a leader may explain why it is so hard to pinpoint one universal set of leadership characteristics that count for every leader. After all: what is seen as an inappropriate action in one situation may be perfectly fine in another. Crisis situations demand directive leadership, while intellectually challenging circumstances may require a much more participative and less authority-driven attitude from the leader.

The most interesting way to understand that great leaders may not be so great in different situations than the one in which they excelled, is to imagine them as such: Picture, for instance Gandhi in Colin Powell’s position, or Lincoln as the CEO of Disney.

So, it all depends. I remember once viewing an old movie about a plane crash. Fortunately no one died, as it was just a small, light aircraft that went down in the desert. But the essence of the story was that, as long as everything was all right, the pilot was totally in charge: a well-balanced leader, respected on basis of his knowledge and dignity.

However, once the plane had crashed, other things became important: food and water needed to be rationed. Someone with particular sense for fairness and integrity emerged as the leader at that point. Then another person declared that he was an engineer of aircrafts, so he emerged as the new leader, based on his skills to redesign a new vehicle from the wreckage so as to get the group out of its horrid position. Once the vehicle was build, an individual with experience in organizing was needed for establishing coherence in the team in order to get the new construction in the air. So, yet another person emerged as the leader at that time. Finally, the new, strange looking vehicle had to be operated by someone who had a sense of direction and knowledge of steering, so the pilot became the leader again at that point. This little story may illustrate the importance of the situation as a decisive factor in leadership.

Another situational factor for potential leaders to keep in mind is the fact that different levels of authority require different processes, and thus, different behaviors. It all has to do with the people, the task at hand, and the environment.

Now that this minuscule piece of the leadership curtain has been lifted, you may ask yourself again what your personal opinion is: are leaders born or made…or both?