“Are leaders born or made?” It’s a simple enough question but one that has huge implications for the way organizations set about finding and developing (or not developing) talent.
After all, the very existence of coaching and development programs assumes that leaders can positively impact their performance through education. Otherwise, organizations should work to hire exceptional leaders and let their natural talent play itself out.
America is a land of leadership fanatics. We etch our Presidents’ faces into the sides of mountains and put their likeness on our currency. We pay leaders in the sports arena triple digit multiples of what the rest of us make and look to them for moral guidance, often with disappointing results. Business leaders like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Steve Jobs become household names whose behaviors are studied and become “best practices” post-hoc.
Our glorification of these leaders, while problematic in some respects, rests on the assumption that they have lived their lives and made choices that are extraordinary and that they should be recognized as such.
But would they deserve the same praise if they had been “born that way?”
On her second birthday, I took my daughter to Build-A-Bear to well, you know, build a bear. After choosing her panda (“This panda loves me daddy!”), we began the process of stuffing and eventually sewing up the little plush toy. As part of the process, she placed a small felt heart and a recorded message inside that says, “I love you” when you depress the bear’s stomach.
Now, I can press Panda’s stomach and hear those three little words whenever I’d like. I know that without a doubt, if I press her stomach, she will tell me that she loves me – she was born that way.
My daughter also tells me that she loves me, but is far less consistent in how she goes about it. In fact, in addition to her frequent expressions of love, she has also told me on occasion that I smell bad, have a pimple, and that she does not like me.
So, if the words are the same coming from either source, why does it warm my heart when it comes from my little girl and mean nothing from a bear? The thing that makes action meaningful is that it is chosen from a host of other, often opposite, choices.
Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and renowned Austrian psychiatrist said it best, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In that response lies our growth and freedom.” Some may say that leaders are born; that they come into the world with everything they need to be great.
If that is the case, I see nothing laudable about leadership. They are living out their destiny in much the same way that Panda is, doing what they were programmed to do. I think that leaders are made. I think that there is a leader within each of us, and that we can all be great in our own sphere.
I also think that we can choose to be lazy, bigoted, hateful, and thwart our growth through our own indifference. That we are capable of both great leadership and great waste is what makes choosing to be a great leader so very special.