Everyone’s leadership style is different, and the general consensus in many circles is that this is due in large part to the individual traits granted at birth. On the opposite side of the opinion spectrum is the belief that leaders, when given the appropriate training and development, can be “manufactured” to be whatever is required at the time. This examination attempts to address both viewpoints without preference; ultimately concluding that though the arguments on either side are strong and valid, a leader is really a combination of both, and that given a particular circumstance, anyone – even the most humble and timid amongst us – can be a leader at any given time.
Could Someone Please Pass the Cream?
It’s not the first topic that comes to mind around the veritable water coolers these days. Joe Schmo’s promotion may come up at some point, and so may his qualifications for such a promotion. But between bagel bites and vacation pictures, it’s highly unlikely that the subject will actually appear in this specific context unless it happens to be brought up by some manager looking for a refill and something work related to keep things honest. Consider this study that manager (“leaded” for me, please). In this investigation, we’ll evaluate both sides of this hot issue, being ever mindful not to show preference to either attitude, and conclude with our educated opinion about whether a leader is born, made or both. In the meantime could someone please pass the cream?
Being born perfect isn’t easy; just ask anyone who was born that way. The problem is, despite certain convictions to the contrary, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who actually was born perfect. As a result we are all forced to live with whatever blemishes taint our inner being; regardless of how subtle or obvious they may appear to those around us. What is interesting though is that these blemishes, as well as any positive characteristics we may possess, are a significant part of who we are as individual human beings and without the sometimes lethal combination of both good and bad, our personalities and psychological makeup would resemble something close to asphalt on a busy freeway.
OK, let’s say we know who we are (don’t assume that this is always a given – some people truly have no clue). Given whatever attributes we may possess, are we able to conclude that because of these specific traits, we can tell the type of leader we are or will be? Is it true that the traits we were born with are all we need to be a successful leader? A recent Biola University web publication (Maltby, 2003) went so far as to suggest that: “In a majority of cases, genetics and early family experiences play the significant role in developing the personality and character needs that motivate the individual to lead. They also contribute to the development of the intellectual and interpersonal skills necessary to lead.” Still, it seems very difficult to believe that all we need to join the illustrious realm of leadership is to be born with great genes.
It’s not just about genes, of course. After all, Mom and Dad had a lot to do with who we are and why we are the way we are. As a matter of fact, Avolino (1999) addressed that particular fact in a report outlining a series of interviews in which he stated: “Ã¢Â?Â¦Mom and Dad can instill us with the tools and drive to lead. Both senior VPs in high-tech firms and the military leaders we interviewed had very involved parents who set challenging goals, translated failure into “how to succeed next time” and lived by high standards of moral conduct – helping their kids to appreciate diverse views.” So, if one’s parents have advanced college degrees, stay involved in the lives of their children and maintain high moral standards, not to mention the fact that the kids will have likely been born with extraordinary “leadership” genes in this scenario, the child is practically a shoo-in, right?
Let’s not put the carriage before the horse just yet. All we’ve been able to tell thus far is that some opinions favor the theory that simply being born with the right characteristics, mixed with a little help from good old Mom and/or Dad, is how one becomes a leader. What we haven’t examined yet is whether a leader can be made.
Meet Your Maker
There are a lot of companies out there who offer some form of leadership training for both corporate and non-corporate clients, and the classes being offered are as varied as the snowflakes that grace us in the winter. From the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Steven Covey to leadership-specific classes offered by local colleges and universities (
Davenport included) and of course the ever-popular Dale Carnegie classes and the host of self-help, self-analysis, self-healing, self-awareness and even self-hypnosis books that one can “self-study” to improve his or her ability to lead. In fact, some might even say that the MBA program is a degree in leadership. The question is, can any of this training and coursework make one a leader? Let’s find out.
According to Carnegie (1936), one technique that any prospective leader should learn is the technique of asking questions versus the direct order approach to people and subordinates. He says that “A technique like that makes it easy for person to correct errors. A technique like that saves a person’s pride and gives him a feeling of importance. It encourages cooperation instead of rebellion.” Before you discard this practice as “touchy-feely mumbo jumbo,” please take a moment to think it through. No one likes to take orders; even those in the military have a hard time with it (though they’ve clearly gotten used to it). Instead of telling someone to do something, phrasing the request in a form of a question such as, “Do you think this would work?” can go a whole lot further in obtaining what you want. And what makes this single example of a leadership skill even more attractive is that it doesn’t take a graduate degree to learn.
Head for Home
We talked earlier about Mom and Dad’s influence on how we have become the people we have become. If you’ll recall, we said that they had a lot to do with how we would end up and that’s very true. What we deliberately failed to mention in detail however was that we were actually learning something. OK, most people really don’t believe they ever learn anything from their parents until they are well into their twenties. Up until that point though, Mommy and Daddy Dearest were considered our judges, our juries, our wardens and in some cases our executioners (though hopefully not in the literal sense). As most of us have figured out by now, we were actually being taught something about how the cruel world operates, and though we didn’t know it at the time, there was actually a life and ultimately leadership lesson to be learned as we were sent stomping and crying to our rooms.
Let’s be honest. Yelling at your kids at the top of your lungs to stop jumping on the couch certainly isn’t the preferred method of communicating with anyone, let alone a five year-old. But as parents we’ve likely learned that neither is asking them politely – particularly when the integrity of a family heirloom or favored lamp hangs in the balance. While the most effective method of communication is probably somewhere in between those two extremes, the larger picture is what we’re showing our kids in the process. In this scenario we’re trying to get them to anticipate the future a little bit by keeping in mind that the heirloom is fifty years old. We’re also trying to indirectly show them the results of effective communication, some self-discipline and maybe even some consideration for others. It’s interesting that these skills are similar to what is being taught to and by companies to their future leaders. Along the same lines we could easily add attention to detail, focus, integrity, goal-setting and a host of other qualities identified as those needed by good leaders.
We’ve talked about how leadership is perceived by some as something ingrained at birth, and we’ve also had a chance to discuss the possibility of leadership as a developed talent. What we haven’t looked at yet is something a little grayer than the black and white of those two and that is situational leadership. Given the appropriate circumstances, anyone can take the role of leadership at anytime. In fact, Marques (2004) makes the gray matter a little denser by saying: “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 a much more participative and less authority-driven attitude from the leader.”
Remember the TV sitcom “Gilligan’s Island?”
If for some unbelievable reason you haven’t, the basic storyline was that seven people from varying backgrounds were shipwrecked on a deserted South Pacific island, and rescue from this apparent paradise seemed impossible. The captain of the destroyed leisure ship, just known as The Skipper to both the viewing public and the castaways, was considered the leader of the group in all matters nautical, while the Professor was looked at as the leader when it came to things relating to science and even basic survival. Mr. Howell, the millionaire, was the group’s financial head (though there really wasn’t much use for his money among the palm trees and coconuts) and the movie star Ginger was the glamour queen (though again, not a lot of application for her sequined dresses and seemingly endless supply of makeup). Our hero and the show’s namesake Gilligan, well, he really didn’t lead much of anything other than laughter but he was able to follow which is something a leader needs. After all, a leader isn’t a leader without a follower, right? The point is that each person was a leader in the circumstance that happened to fit them at the time, be it the Professor’s radio or the Skipper’s ability to built something that could sail them back to civilization. This show was an excellent example of how everyone has a leader inside and when called upon to lead, is able to step up to the plate and swing with confidence; most of the time without the benefit or complex corporate training or in-born, environmentally developed, capacities. Even Mary Ann and Mrs. Howell, the other two castaways on the show, were able to find a situation to lead, even if the farm girl and socialite backgrounds respectively didn’t appear to have any application.
When we first enter this world, such things as our eye color, our hair color, and skin color are pretty much predetermined and unless you’re Michael Jackson, is likely to stay with you for the rest of your life whether you like it or not. What isn’t scientifically proven however is whether or not we are born leaders. Some believe that leadership is as ingrained into our genetics as our eye color, while others feel that leadership is something that is taught by way of the classroom or some other form of formal training. Further still, many have the opinion that neither has as much to do with leadership as circumstance. The truth is a good leader is most likely to be some combination of all three. No one is necessarily born a leader, and chances are pretty good that training alone won’t take you to the CEO levels, though it’s possible that if circumstances require you to step in and you have the knowledge and ability to do so, you will. Regardless of your particular view, rest assured that until science proves otherwise, the debate will rage on. In the meantime, don’t worry about whether or not you are or will be a great leader. As far as this paper is concerned you’ve already reached that point. Now go take advantage of it!