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Are leaders born or made?

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This paper examines an age old question of whether leaders are born or made. The paper considers various leadership theories and discusses different viewpoints to consider this question.
PSM310 Leadership and Business Acumen
Are leaders born or made?
Justin Di Giulio
Page 1 of 6
Justin V Di Giulio
Are leaders born or made?
Justin V Di Giulio
1i
FCILTA, AFAIM, CPMgr
1
Parcel Locker 10012 59584 Docklands, Victoria, 3008
Email for correspondence: justin.digiulio@griffithuni.edu.au
Abstract
This paper examines an age old question of whether leaders are born or made. The
paper considers various leadership theories and discusses different viewpoints to
consider this question.
Keywords: leadership, trait theory, emotional intelligence, behavioural theories
Introduction
Are leaders born not made? That is a
question which has been plaguing people
interested in leadership for centuries.
There is no one definitive answer which
has successfully been proven. If they
cannot be made, then this debate should
be concluded here, and we should be
investing our time in genetic research to
identify the genes which have these traits
pre-programmed in DNA.
If they can be made, then this justifies the
industry that has emerged over the last ten
or so years for leadership consultants and
experts in the field. This paper examines
this question and examines and attempts
to provide an insight on different
leadership theories to that end.
Definition of Leadership
The definition of leadership which has
been adopted in this paper as being, “a
process by which a person influences
others to accomplish objectives or a goal,
by guiding them to ensure a cohesive and
coherent direction”. Northouse (2007, p3)
defines leadership as “a process whereby
an individual influences a group of
individuals in a new way to achieve a
common goal” which is similar, and as
such it was adopted as it resonated
strongly with the author.
Many theories of leadership exist, and
countless definitions exist. Authors such
as Sorensen (Sorensen 2000, p1) indicate
that “human beings have been keenly
interested in leaders and leadership”,
inferring great philosophers and thinkers
have been wrestling with this concept for
eras. Sorensen provides an insight into the
origin of the term “leader”, having first
appeared in English language from the
1300’s, and its meaning was “to travel” or
“to show the way”. So inherently, at
minimum, leaders must show a new way
towards a common goal.
Leadership theories
The contrast between Plato’s The
Republic (in Lee, 1955) and Machiavelli’s
The Prince (in Thomson, 2001) clearly
shows that historically, leaders can be
moral or immoral, good or evil, fair or
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untrustworthy. This is an interesting point,
and though preferred that a “great leader”
be “good” the author contends that it is
not absolute, and great leaders can lead
bad or immoral pursuits or organisations,
though these types of leaders tend to be
named other titles, as there is a tendency
in modern culture to avoid praising
negative or “bad” leaders. There are many
examples of great leaders, where their
characteristics and traits have been
studied.
Discussion
As stated previously, human beings have
been interested in studying leaders for
centuries. Studying great leaders was a
way of analysing the characteristics of the
leader so that these could be understood
and emulated. This study has been called
“Great Man theory” and later “Trait
theory”, which is discussed further in the
next section of this paper.
In a modern context, leadership, as an
academic field has emerged really in the
twentieth century. Bass (in Sorensen
2000, p3) credits James MacGregor Burns
as being the instrumental researcher who
triggered an avalanche of research into the
topic of leadership after a 1978 lecture on
the subject. He is widely recognised as
the father of leadership studies, and since
then, many academic institutions and
academics focussing on the topic
particularly in the past decade. The past
ten years has seen a significant increase in
leadership material produced, which
continues to beg the questions that if a
leader is born and not developed, then
why study it? Is it nature or nurture?
“The most dangerous leadership myth is
that leaders are born-that there is a genetic
factor to leadership. This myth asserts that
people simply either have certain
charismatic qualities or not. That's
nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true.
Leaders are made rather than born.”
Bennis (n.d.).
Some great leaders emerge over time and
throughout history, there are many
examples of this. In more modern times,
people like Mahatma Gandhi, George
Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson
Mandela and Dr Martin Luther King are
but to name a few. “Great Man” theory
was the first emergent theory of
leadership, as it was a first attempted to
describe how leadership existed. These
people were characterised as heroic
almost mystical figures destined to rise to
leadership.
This theory suggests that these great men
were somehow naturally skilled and
would change the world in some way.
Carlyle (1840) popularised this theory in
the 1840’s, and in later years, Spencer
(1896) argued successfully that great men
are the product of their society, and that
their actions would be impossible without
the social conditions built before their
lifetime.
Spencer (1896, p34) points out, "[Y]ou
must admit that the genesis of a great man
depends on the long series of complex
influences which has produced the race in
which he appears, and the social state into
which that race has slowly grown, before
he can remake his society, his society
must make him.” In other words, the
society in which the leader has grown up
in, prepares him to be a leader, and only
then he can take all his experiences and
lead and reform society for the better.
In later studies of leadership, Galton
(Oliver et al., 2008) a psychologist
spearheaded a field of study called Trait
theory which attempted to identify
individual leaders’ traits and to develop a
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set of characteristics that others can
understand and study.
Trait theory in its simplest form naturally
accords with the view that leaders are
born not made, as it studies individuals
and then attempts to cluster a core of
attributes. These include, achievement,
influence, responsibility (Stogdill 1974),
drive, motivation, (Kirkpatrick et al.
1991), self-confidence (Stogdill 1948),
cognitive ability, honesty and integrity,
(Zaccaro et al. 2004), and interpersonal
skills (McCall 1983). The information
does provide a comprehensive list,
however it shows a good sample of some
of the key traits that have been identified
with trait theory and which academics
have discussed.
The benefit of these two theories is that
they provide a general indication of a
person’s leadership potential. It provides
an opportunity for organisations to be able
to identify people who may have some
leadership skills, for which they can be
further developed. Criticism levelled at
these theories question why people who
possess these skills are sometimes not
leaders. Furthermore, why is it that in
some circumstances, CEO’s perform
excellently, yet in another environment
they may fail abysmally? This suggests
that there are other factors at play. These
theories also rely on a level of
subjectiveness to assess the traits in the
first instance. While it is conceded that
traits do play a key role in identifying
leadership, it is likely that this is only an
indicator and that we should be searching
more deeply.
A recent study (Hannah 2013, p 393) from
Wake University found that there are
neurological differences in the brains of
people who had been indicated as leaders.
This type of research may make it
possible to identify future leadership
candidates through brain scans.
An interesting statement by Lombardi,
(n.d.) is “Leaders aren't born they are
made. And they are made just like
anything else, through hard work. And
that's the price we'll have to pay to
achieve that goal, or any goal.”
Parallels can be drawn with music, that
there are talented performers such as
singers, who despite no training, are able
to perform with excellence. What many
may not consider and what may be
discounted, is that, that person may have
grown up with singers as parents, or
listened to a lot of music or the like, and
was surrounded by influences and had
inadvertent ‘informal’ training. They may
have had raw talent which as a
consequence of their various experiences
had moulded them.
Many believe that nurturing skills and
growing them is the key to successful
leadership. Basketball superstar Jordon,
M. (n.d.) is quoted as saying “Everybody
has talent, but ability takes hard work.”
This suggests that everyone has ability,
and that anyone can grow and develop
into someone who is competent and
possibly even very good.
The role of a person’s preferences may
influence how fast they develop
themselves and in what areas that they
may develop. If they have natural interests
which favour what is considered
leadership traits they may be more
interested in further building and
developing these skills, and hence, one
day become effective leaders.
Behavioural leadership theories assume
leaders can be developed and that
leadership and leadership skills can be
learned. One of the more famous theories
was Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid
(1964) which sought to define behavioural
traits and map them against two axis,
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concern for people and concern for
production. This attempted to define
different leadership styles based on these
dimensions. Research solely on
behaviours eventually lost steam, as there
was inconsistencies in the research’s
situations in which they were applied.
More recent research has focused on the
importance of context or the larger
system in which a leader and followers
work” (Allen et al, 2012). Two models of
“Emotional Intelligence” (EI) currently
exist, these are namely the ability model
(Mayer & Salovey, 1997) and a mixed
model (Bar-On, 2006; Goleman, 1995).
Goleman (1995) focused his research on
four basic competencies. These four
competency areas included self-
awareness, social awareness, self-
management and social skills. People who
displayed higher levels of ability in these
areas were considered to have higher
emotional intelligence.
Increasingly research suggests that
Emotional Intelligence plays a very
important role in determining leadership
success in life. Furthermore, after
extensive research, Bar-On (2006)
developed a measure to determine how
effective leaders may be by determining
their emotional intelligence quotient
(E.Q.). People with higher E.Q. scores, are
considered to have high levels of
emotional intelligence and hence perform
better in the work environment in settings
where empathy and soft-skills are
required. Easlis (2012) indicates
employees with higher E.Q.’s have higher
employee satisfaction scores.
As a consequence of this research, other
fields of study have emerged. An
interesting theory called “Emotionally
intelligent leadership” (Allen, 2012) has
emerged and combines research in
emotional intelligence and leadership
theory in an integrated fashion in an
attempt to understand and define how
these two areas of study work together.
So, can emotional intelligence be learned,
or is innate in the person? Goldsmith
(2009) undertook a review of research by
Delphine (2009, p. 36) that it can be
achieved.
Goldsmith (2009) states “Delphine and
her colleagues found that members of the
group that received the training showed a
significant improvement in their ability to
identify their feelings and the feelings of
others, as well as to manage and control
their emotions. What's more, these
improvements were apparent not only
right after the training but also six months
later.”
Conclusion
There are many differing views on
whether leaders are born or made. This
paper attempts to examine some of the
theories and provide some additional
perspectives on this topic. These
perspectives include whether leadership is
a trait of individuals, whether leaders are
born with neurological differences, or
whether emotional intelligence can be
developed. It is this author’s contention
that similar to other types of talents,
leadership as a skill can be learned. There
may be a small percentage of leaders who
may be born with individual traits which
lend itself to leadership, but leadership
itself can be learned, especially by
committed individuals who display an
interest in doing so.
(Total Words: 1901.)
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i
The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily constitute those of the
Victorian State Government and/or past employers.
... When someone finds his vision and mission, there is peace within inner peace and forms a solid building of character, every speech and action begins to exert influence on the environment, and its existence encourages change in its organization, that is when someone is born a true leader [11]. As a reflection of being a true leader, the leader is expected to be a wise figure [4], brave in making decisions authoritative, and able to lead his organization to achieve a common goal [1]. ...
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