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Monday, April 13, 2009

Some thoughts on leadership—are leaders born or made?

Leadership is a subject that has interested me for many years and I have numerous books on it, especially those by John Maxwell and Bill Hybels.

I'd been discussing the need for leadership training within organisations with a close friend who has had much experience in the business world. The discussion turned to whether or not leaders are born or whether they can, in reality, be trained. My friend was of the view that leaders are born with leadership talent and therfeore cannot be made into leaders.

As our discussion progressed and we talked about what others were saying it became obvious to me that we needed to clarify what we meant by the word "leader". We had been thinking primarily in terms of the person who is able to lead by setting the direction others are to follow—the person who can give directions with others being able to follow in confidence, knowing that the leader's approach is sound. Is this a natural talent or can people be trained to lead in this way? I'm strongly inclined to agree with my friend that such people are born with this talent and that there is little training that can make anyone into such a leader.

So the next step for me was to find out what some of the dictionaries defined as "leadership". Much to my surprise, various dictionaries provided little insight into the usage of "leadership" or the word "leader". My Australian Concise Macquarie Dictionary defined "leader" as the "guiding or directing head", but it didn't even have an entry for "leadership". The American Websters Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary provided little additional information on "leader" although it did have a small entry for "leadership", defining it as "1. The office or position of a leader; 2. Capacity to lead". The Concise Oxford Dictionary also failed to provide a definition of "leadership". So using dictionaries wasn't a suitable source of information.

However, as we discussed the issue further it became obvious to me that the word "leader" had two totally different meanings in common usage. The first was what we had been discussing—the person who has the capacity to set the direction for others in such a way that they naturally follow and succeed. The second is far more common in today's society and refers to the position a person has, whether they actually lead or not. It refers to the person in charge, the boss, the supervisor, the political party head, the Prime Minister or President of a country.

As for the second group, these are the people who often do need training, especially in business.

I find it a sad commentary on today's society that so many "leaders" are just figureheads. Take modern-day work practices. There was a time when organisations employed managers or supervisors. But in a desire to give everyone a "say" in the running of the organisation, they are more likely to be called "team leaders". It could be a very sound management concept, but from my experience, these people rarely lead in the real world—their primary tasks seem to be to chair meetings and possibly act as spokesmen for the team. I have no problem with the overall concept of letting people have their input into the running of things but from my experience, if there isn't sound leadership the team becomes ineffective.

As for the first group, I believe anyone can improve their leadership ability, but I'm strongly inclined to agree with my friend that REAL leaders are born that way.

Two of the best leadership books that I've read are The 360° Leader and The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell. The first book deals with how the natural leader can lead a whole organisation from within and doesn't have to be the person at the top of the management hierarchy.

Here is what John Maxwell says in the opening pages of The 360° Leader:
"You do not have to be held hostage to your circumstances or position. You do not have to be the CEO to lead effectively. And you can learn to make ah impact through your leadership even if you report to someone who is not a good leader. What's the secret? You learn to develop your influence from wherever you are in the organization by becoming a 360-Degree Leader, You learn to lead up, lead across, and lead down.
Not everyone understands what it means to influence others in every direction—those you work for, the people who are on the same level with you, and those who work for you. Some people are good at leading the members of their own team, but they seem to alienate tthe leaders in other departments of the organization. Others individuals excel at building a great relationship with their boss, but they have no influence with anyone below them in the organization. A few people can get along within just about anybody, but they never seem to get any work done. On the other hand, some people are productive, but they can't get along with anybody. But 360-Degree Leaders are different. Only 360-Degree Leaders influence people at every level of the organization. By helping others, they help themselves."
He goes on to say:
"If I had to identify the number on misconception people have about leadership, it would be the belief that leadership comes simply from having a position or title. But nothing could be further from the truth. You don't need to possess a position at the top of your group, department, division, or organization in order to lead. If you think you do then you have bought into the position myth."
From The 21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership, here are some of the quotes I like best from some of his chapter headings:

"To change the direction of the organization, change the leader"

"The True Measure of Leadership Is Influence—Nothing More, Nothing Less"

"Anyone Can Steer the Ship, But It Takes a Leader to Chart the Course"

"When the Real Leader Speaks, People Listen"

"Trust Is the Foundation of Leadership"

"People Naturally Follow Leaders Stronger Than Themselves"

"Leaders Touch a Heart Before They Ask for a Hand"

"Only Secure Leaders Give Power to Others"

"People Buy Into the Leader, Then the Vision"

"Leaders Find a Way for the Team to Win"

"Leaders Understand That Activity Is Not Necessarily Accomplishment"

Well, this is a giant subject and these are just a few miniscule thoughts that come to mind, but I believe they are working considering if you are in a position of responsibility, or even with no official responsibility but with a natural talent for leadership.


  1. Good work Rob, however I see systemic process as the mechanism that allows so called "leaders" to function in any capacity of responsibility and influence in politics and in business. My view is that when you stress the system the first thing that collapses is confidence in the existing leadership. People demand change more often than not. These are the times that the true leader - those who have the innate qualities to provide a vision that others are prepared to listen to, should come to the fore and provide answers that others cannot (or were not formerly accepted as legitimate alternatives).

    Unfortunately all to often throughout history, the ones that do come to the fore in these times are opportunistic despots who use oppression and cruelty in whatever form to dominate those around them however, very occasionally a true leader emerges and steers those around them to a better outcome.

    In my view true leadership is about the innate qualities of vision (your vision is only limited to how far you can see), resolute adherence to that vision (despite what others say and do), persistence in maintaining that belief structure and above all, natural courage (the sort of courage that allows you to be very objective re yourself and still maintain your view even if everyone else disagrees).

    Dealing positively in a toxic environment is a good test of these qualities but can only construed as leadership if those detractors become believers and accept your view (vision). Not all will but once the majority accept your view (vision), then it becomes "mainstream" and consequently "part of the system".

  2. That's an excellent and concise summary that I agree with. Just a pity that we have so few people with the vision to make a real difference in the world, or often even within organisations.