Great Leaders: Born and Made

June 24, 2014 Vince Molinaro

In the seemingly endless debate about whether great leaders are born or made, the truth may be found in a most unlikely place: the youth soccer pitch.

On most youth soccer teams, you will see a full spectrum of leaders, prospective leaders and players for whom leadership will never be a possibility.

On most of these teams, there will be one or two players who demonstrate natural leadership abilities. They are not just the best athletes on the team, but also the ones that show the greatest capacity to compete. When the game is on the line, these are the players that lead by never giving up.

On that team, however, you will also find talented players who, if they have any fault, it is that they lay back and wait for others to take charge. These are the players who are not leaders then and there, but could very well develop into fine leaders with the proper encouragement and skill development.

Then there are the players who are just hanging on. They are timid and lacking in the desire to compete. For many of these players, leadership on the soccer pitch will prove to be an elusive dream: something that exists just outside their grasp.

Our youth soccer team demonstrates, in its most essential form, the challenge that organizations have in identifying and developing great leaders.

Getting stuck in the debate

Far too many organizations get stuck in the debate over whether leaders are born or made. Different constituencies battle over this question, with the winning side usually dictating how resources are spent, and which strategies are used to keep the leadership ranks well stocked.

Should an organization spend its resources looking for “the naturals,” the leaders who were born with the inalienable ability to command respect and motivate performance? Or is it better to find the “diamonds in the rough” – individuals who can, with the proper support and development, evolve into great and effective leaders?

The reality is that great leaders are born. And they are made. Period.

This may seem like a contradiction, but with a closer examination of the essence of great leadership it’s easy to see how great leaders often follow different paths to get there. Some rise to leadership responsibilities very early in their careers because they already possess many of the qualities needed to lead; others are slower in developing, building skills and confidence gradually along the way.

Identifying those who can learn to lead

The soccer team dynamic is a good starting point for many organizations when deciding how to develop the next generations of leaders. But even with that basic model to draw upon, there are certain provisos.

First, do not expect your natural leaders and those that are developed to necessarily exhibit the same characteristics.

The major personality traits that are present in most great leaders–openness to new experiences, empathy, strategic thinking, and conscientiousness–are really baked into someone’s personality by their mid-30s. And even at that stage, there are certain traits that some people will simply be unable to embrace.

If you see leadership potential in a candidate, you need to quickly determine whether the missing ingredients are learnable or whether they will be difficult to acquire no matter how much money, time and effort is invested.

Strategic thinking is a pertinent example. As leaders rise through the ranks, they have few opportunities to author strategy and are instead rewarded for flawless execution. When considered for increasingly senior positions, their ability to think abstractly (one form of intelligence) and to anticipate scenarios that haven’t yet transpired becomes critical. Those without the natural ability to think beyond concrete can be taught to apply a strategic process, but they will never be as strong as someone with innate strategic acumen.

Fortunately, although organizations may want to embed a certain style of leadership, no one organization requires a single kind of leader. Different leadership roles require different clusters of personality traits. That means the potential pool of leaders can be quite broad.

Moving beyond the 'nature/nurture' leadership debate

We need to evolve our thinking about leadership. It’s not either one or the other: born or made. It’s both. And we have to use this higher understanding to guide our investments in developing leaders.

If we invest too much in the "nature," or born side of the debate - that leadership is a magical trait that is only embodied in a few fortunate souls - we are limiting the gene, and talent pool from which we will draw our great leaders. The reality is there simply aren't enough naturals out there to meet the demand for great leaders.

On the other hand, if we assume that everyone has the potential to lead with enough "nurturing," we will be asking some people to do things they are simply unable to do even with support and guidance. That is a recipe for disaster.

The ideal balance is to quickly identify the natural-born leaders, and then invest heavily in identifying those that have the potential and the desire to take on a leadership challenge. This will create the largest pool of leadership talent.

It will likely also mean identifying talented employees who don’t have leadership potential to ensure that they can still prosper and contribute without having to take on a job for which they were not built.

The “born or made” debate has been going on for what seems like an eternity. It’s time to get off the gerbil wheel once and for all, and admit what we have always likely known but we’re afraid to admit:great leaders are born and made.


About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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