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Are Leaders Born or Made?

By David Garic

The age-old question continues to raise its ugly head: Are leaders born to lead, or are they made? Does Leadership DNA exist? We often point to one person or the other and say, “Now, he’s a leader,” without giving a lot of thought to how this person became a leader in the first place. Sometimes it is easy to simply conclude that some of us have the leadership gene and some of us do not. Those who do get to lead, while those who do not are forever assigned to the sidelines while leaders have all the fun, make all the decisions, and cover themselves in glory.   This comes as rather unsettling news for those of us who fear we may get the opportunity to lead. What hope do we have that we can ever aspire to lead people, teams, companies, organizations, even our children?

Fear not, there is hope for the rest of us because here is some very good news:  Leadership DNA is a myth. There is no such thing as a natural ability to lead that exists within some of us while remaining absent in others. A closer examination of those leaders we often hold in high regard, those we refer to as role models, will reveal one common characteristic among all of them. They all have a burning desire to lead, to be influential, motivational, and take responsibility for themselves and others. What makes these leaders effective is not a natural ability; it is their desire to lead people, combined with a set of learned skills that they apply as leaders. The only real ingredient in the leadership recipe that they possessed when they began leading was desire. They learned the rest of it. The desire to lead was the motivational ingredient that drove them to lead;  the skills they learned along the way are what allowed them to lead people.

Obviously, there are some people who demonstrate a greater ability for leading people than others demonstrate. They are Leadership All-Stars. They are the best leaders among us and have become the best by practicing and learning from their practice. Nearly all of them would recall the key experiences in their life from which they learn the practice of leadership. Nearly all of them would say the starting point for their leadership journey began at the intersection of a desire to lead and learning how to lead.   Equipped with the desire to lead, the absence of the leadership gene is irrelevant.

Leaders are developed. Leadership is nothing more than a collection of skills, that when employed, produce results.

  • Leaders create the motivational environment for their followers that cause them to want to achieve.

  • They are able to easily identify the needs of their followers and direct them on the pathway to success.

  • Leaders can skillfully strike the balance between attending to the needs of their followers while accomplishing the tasks required of them.

  • Leaders can learn leadership skills in a variety of ways (training, self-study, observing other leaders) but unless these skills are practiced in realistic and meaningful experiences they are forgotten.

Development is the key that unlocks the leadership gateway. It is the continuous increase in skills and abilities that occurs over time. It is the result of continuously learning through life’s experiences, coupled with reflective practice-taking a hard look at oneself in the context of those experiences. It is the practice of reflecting upon one’s experiences, usually facilitated by experts, which produces leaders who produce results.

The evidence that supports development as the pathway to leadership is substantial, and it is nothing new. Some of the premier institutions in the United States are based on the principle that by reflective practice, people can be developed into leaders. All three of the nation’s military academies and all four of the nation’s military services subscribe to the principle that almost anyone who possesses a desire to lead can become a fundamentally sound leader. Universities throughout the United States are busily standing up bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, awarding degrees in leadership. Numerous companies in the private sector have been developing their own brand of leader, designed to meet their needs. Companies like General Electric, Southwest Airlines and Dell place significant emphasis on developing leaders and they have reaped the rewards from their efforts. Institutions and organizations like these believe that leadership can be learned, and more importantly, leaders can be developed.

Some day soon, the argument will end. Until then, for those of us who may be wondering, “Do I have it or don’t I,” not to fear. It can be done. Start with desire. We can learn the rest.

Read other articles and learn more about David Garic.

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