For additional great examples of leaders can be both born and made, please see our latest research on how such leaders balance building trust and maintaining control, and how they can create lasting positive change.
This post continues to be one of our most popular. As we write our sequel to our book, we have continued to think about this question, and these are some of the questions and issues we are considering:
- In light of the fact that we believe that courage, humility and authenticity underpin trustworthy leaders, it would be interesting to discover how a leader develops these characteristics.
- To what extent do leaders develop these characteristics early in life, or can they acquire them in adulthood?
- How do leaders’ ability to build trust serve as a foundation for lasting positive change/culture?
- What developmental experiences contribute to leaders’ ability to demonstrate trustworthiness and building trust with others?
The Reverend Dr. Jean Smith, the recently retired Executive Director of the Seamen’s Church Institute, who is featured in our book, spoke about this recently at a panel discussion on leading change. Her husband Peter Smith, who was an executive with McNeil Consumer Products during the Tylenol crisis in 1981, and who recently retired as a marketing executive with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic was also part of the panel, along with Jeff McBride of McKinsey & Co.
All three discussed their leadership journeys, and their change management work involving other leaders as well, in ways that reaffirmed that great leaders are both born and made. Early experiences in all three of their careers had significant effects on their own later career choices, their leadership decisions, and their effectiveness in creating positive change in organizations. They all possess what I would call innate qualities, including 1) high intelligence, 2) great energy and passion, and empathy based on outstanding communication skills, the latter of which may be partly genetic or learned at a very early age. Nonetheless, each also had critical incidents and experiences that shaped how they lead, how they partner with others, and how they make a difference.
One set of insights that I gained from their remarks is that effective leaders need to make the most of their genetic endowments by reflecting on their experiences critically, waiting patiently for new opportunities but then quickly seizing them, and as much as any other approach, listening deeply to people around them.
We answer this question in the first chapter of our new book, Trust is Everything — Become the Leader Others Will Follow, just published on Lulu.
The answer is both, because it takes courage, humility, and authenticity, which are influenced by nature and nurture. Our forthcoming book addresses this question directly as we profile how leaders build trust with their stakeholders. Stay tuned to this blog for details on our book launch!
Third Update 10/07:
I had great honor and pleasure of meeting with the Reverend Jean Smith Friday, September 21st, a week before her planned retirement from the Seamen’s Church Institute. In a number of interviews I did with her staff, the same themes kept getting repeated: Jean is a coach, a mentor, and a protector of her staff as they minister to mariners both domestic and from around the world. In a world which often views seafarers as either burdens or threats, she and her organization provided a trusted safe-haven for the people that bring us goods from around the world and make our economy even possible.
Second Update 4/07:
Here’s another take on the nature versus nurture perspective on leadership: I’ve decided that most failures of leadership are due in part because the leader wasn’t properly disciplined as a child. In other words, they were either “beaten up to much or not beaten enough.” An overstated perspective perhaps, but it seems to explain much to me. Individuals who weren’t disciplined enough or disciplined inconsistently as youngsters grow up to be narcissistic, unethical adults. Individuals who received discipline that is too harsh, or too arbitrary grow up to be authoritarian adults who disempower others they work with.
More thoughts later…
Update 10/2006: This post, originally written on May 8, 2006, continues to be one of our most popular, judging by the number of hits it receives each day. Since I wrote it, I have become even more convinced that leaders are made and not born. Our current deficiencies among our political and business leaders in my opinion, is not the result of poorly-born leaders, but rather poorly-made leaders. As we have demanded increasingly short-term and simplistic solutions to the many complex problems facing our organizations and our society, it is no wonder that our leaders have responded with inadequate and sometimes harmful solutions. We can, and should demand more from our leaders, and only elect those individuals who are willing and able to tackle problems courageously, who will tell the truth to their constituents, and who can learn from their mistakes.
I have tried to teach my students over the years that leaders are made and not born. By this I mean that even though some individuals are naturally more inclined to become leaders, based on their early life experiences and yes, even genetics, all people have the capacity to become leaders if they have the desire and make the effort to do so.
I have had my students read Bob Quinn’s books Deep Change and Building the Bridge as you Walk on it. I have also provided what I consider to be some very compelling examples of leaders who were made, not born, including Jean Smith who leads the Seamen’s Church Institute, Bob Lintz, former executive at General Motors, the family members of Two Men and a Truck, International, Dennis Quaintance of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels, my college classmates Bill Bass and Dave Lassman, and many others. Despite these efforts, I still have many students who believe that these examples are really evidence of born leaders. While I believe that these people are extraordinary leaders, I still think they are ordinary people that rose to the challenge of creating transformational change.
What do you think? Are leaders born, or can they be made?