Are Leaders Born or Made?

Sir Francis Galton was a cousin of a cousin of Charles Darwin. Now that you’ve read this, would you be surprised if I told you he believed leadership traits were hereditary? In his book Hereditary Genius Galton argued that Leadership is a unique ability that is part of an individual’s genetic makeup.  In other words, you inherit your leadership and you pass it on to your children. He proposed selective mating to produce individuals with extraordinary leadership qualities. Later researches, still inspired by the eugenic theory, concluded that leaders were likely taller than the average, more extrovert than the average, more good looking than the average or more intelligent than the average. I am sure that as you read this list of traits, you can think of great leaders who defeat those definitions: Napoleon for height or Ghandi for extroversion for example. (Being politically correct, I will abstain giving examples of exceptions for the latter two attributes.)

In ancient Chinese literature, Lao-tzu described leaders as hardworking, honest individuals who handled conflicts fairly.  Medieval authors talked about wisdom and reasoning capacities.  More recent approaches looked at personality types, skills and expertise. The first attempts to measure those traits were done during World War I in order to select the most competent men for responsible positions. During one of my visits to Russia, the Rector of one of the Academy of Public Administration explained to me how, during the days of the USSR, young people were selected based on psychometric tools at a very young age to become leaders. He described to me how if you made the “A” list, you were considered a leader, would be developed and your future in responsibility position was assured for life, while if you made the “B” list you could never aspire to become a leader.

Is it inherited?

The largest studies of leader’s traits were conducted using Costa and McCrea’s NEO-PI and the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Despite those studies successfully identifying common preferences for extroversion and for being intuitive, for example, they found leaders everywhere, in all quadrants described by their models. In other word, personality types or preference were not predictors of leadership qualities or success.

Why is it that we can recognize a leader and feel the influence this person has on us and yet fail to define permanent attributes that would allow predicting high leadership skills? What those studies have shown is that despite leadership qualities being well recognized (for example maintaining good relationships, having a clear vision, being able to influence and generate powerful engagement from others), individuals who did not have a specific personality trait were able to learn the associated skills  to become effective leaders.

The talent analogy

I have two children (teenagers now) who learned to play the violin. Being myself a pianist, I could recognize very early on that my son was naturally gifted for music. At a young age, he sang in pitch, was able to recognize and reproduce complex rhythms. When he asked me to take violin lessons, it was a no brainer. My daughter was also a gifted artist, at drawing for example, but music was less natural for her. She did have talent for music, but it came much less easily to her. However she has that quality of being amazingly self-disciplined (I admire her for that!): still today she does what needs to be done when it needs to be done rather than when she feels like doing it. Her brother, on the other hand, the gifted one, relied on his talent and always started practicing at the last minute, the day before his lesson. As a result, after six years of violin, they were about at the same level, playing together the Pachelbel canon accompanied by yours truly!

Having spent close to 20 years teaching, facilitating and supporting leadership development, it is has been my experience that leadership is like talent for music or sports.  I’ve seen literally thousands of people every year committing to work on those leadership skills. Some of those people are extraordinary naturals, while some others are like my daughter, tenaciously working at it, determined and tireless. I have to say I have the highest respect for the latter, for the commitment and energy they put into improving their skills. Some of them have told me that when they try out a new communication approach or attempt for the first time to engage their employees on a difficult road, that they feel staged, scripted, playing a role in a film. But as they keep working at it, they slowly become proficient and less uncomfortable and can use the skill when needed, as far as it may be from their natural preference or tendency. Of the two groups, where will find the best leaders be in the end?

It’s in your hands!

Ian, one of my great colleagues, uses a metaphor of a leader as the driver of a car. You can always decide to drive or not. If you don’t want to, you can always park on the side of the road and walk away. However, if you make that decision to drive and to keep driving, you have to cope with what you will encounter. You can’t blame the road for being curvy or icy, the road does not care. As a driver, you must develop the skills and experience needed to drive to become less intimidated by various road conditions and more competent in facing various driving situations, but in the end it’s always your decision to drive or not. It’s in your hands. Some people take the train!

We often feel sucked into the spiral of Leadership and yet, it is a choice. I have to admit that there are days more difficult than others where I have to remind myself that leading is my decision… What about you esteemed colleagues? Are you driving? Do you assume this as your choice? Are you honing your driving skills?