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Are leaders like this born or made?

Its come up again in the last few weeks and its something I think a lot about. Can Leaders be made? Or do they have to be born? The longer I spend on our little rock spinning through space the more I become convinced it’s the latter. Leaders can only be born? Not made? But then again, I don’t know…

Lets look at talent generally. It surprises me that for almost everything else, we accept natural selection at work. But not in leadership terms. And I don’t know why.

The case for the prosecution 

We all accept we can’t all play in football teams that will lift the Champions League trophy, we understand, no matter how much we may desire otherwise, we will never take our rightful place on the PGA tour, winning millions hitting a little white ball around a field. We accept without rancour that there are superstars who’s almost inhuman sporting prowess have allowed them to exist in an everlasting pantheon of greats to be eulogised about and romanticised to ever-increasing levels of fame.

It’s the same outside of sports. Back during our school days we decided which path to take with our studies. We allowed those inclined to the sciences free reign, neither holding them back or seemingly interested in their pursuit of knowledge. We saw the artists amongst us rise to take their places in the creative world without a second thought, much less an envious glance from us, we the ‘ordinary’, the ‘normal’ population.

And particularly today, we realise, some are born to write ‘computer code’, to develop the machines and devices that are helping us to hurtle into a science fiction future. We can’t do those things, those people are special, they may even be even freaks, depending on your point of view. But we do understand that we can’t do what they do. And we accept that.

It’s tough at the top

And so to business, and leadership particularly. Its strikes me its easy to get ‘into’ this world. A smart mouth or an eye for a deal and you’re in. An ability to sell is enough to propel one high into the corporate stratosphere. And suddenly one finds oneself ‘leading’.

Leading an organisation. Leading a company, or a department. With no qualification other than your ability to perform the speciality that your department focuses on. Sales people become sales managers whether they are any good at managing people or not. Another example, accountants become finance directors, again, simply because they were good at the job they were employed originally to do.

And now these people are leading us. Responsible for our employment and consequently, in large part our future. And some of them are not very good at it at all.

Some are great. Like some sort of populist equivalent to that sports star we talked about they get book deals and appear on television. We aspire to be like them in the same way as we want to play football at the highest level, or rugby for our country, but something is different this time.

Why is this different? 

For some reason, we believe we can emulate these people. Maybe it’s because their feats aren’t physical. They posses, we tell ourselves, powers of the mind and control over the emotions. Powers we can learn for ourselves. Powers we can capture for ourselves by reading their books, or watching their videos. Even more strangely, and this has really left me scratching my head over the years, some of them have no qualification to teach us at all. We believe we can learn these powers from people whose only qualifications are that they were able to secure a book deal.

People that write self-help books, people who write management books, people who write leadership books. In the majority of cases, their only experience of the ‘greatness’ we aspire to is some vague and unsubstantiated story they tell in the books we consume voraciously.

And I’m afraid the internet has made it worse. Ebooks and blogs (I am aware of the irony!) that purport to be able to impart the secrets of success abound. Where ever you look there are tips for the top and strategies that will ensure your ascension to the highest levels of the corporate world.

In no other field that I am aware of do we think we are able to emulate the top percentage, these highest performers in the same way we think we can emulate great leaders.

Don’t go throwing your business degree out just yet

And the same thing goes for serious business schools. They too pitch the dream that you, ordinary Joe, can learn to stride the corridors of power. All it takes is a little revision and the passing of some exams, and you are a fully qualified leader of people.

I wonder why this is the case? I wonder why leadership of all things, is the one area we think we can achieve greatness in, from a standing start. Without any prior evidence to support the ambition. Without any rational basis whatsoever sometimes, in my opinion. We can sign up to leadership school and take the course, and emerge complete, a leader for the modern world to look up to.

Thats not to say these things can’t have a positive impact. I am absolutely sure that those who are capable of managing people, of leading organisations to greater things no doubt gain valuable knowledge and experience from attendance at business schools and leadership courses. Thats not my argument. I fully accept a great leader going into a system such as this comes out improved, maybe beyond all recognition. But I wonder if it has to be in them in the first place?

There are plenty of sports coaching manuals for sure, videos and websites to enhance your golf, tennis, squash or whatever it maybe, but no one seriously expects to attain the highest levels. Improve ourselves yes, copy the success of the stars no.

We wouldn’t dream of turning up at Manchester United’s football ground and demand training and a shot at the big time. The thoughts that we might call up a Simon Cowell and offer our musicianship to his record company are the merest flight of fancy (The X Factor and BGT notwithstanding!) But we genuinely think a course, or a book, or a blog will propel us to success beyond out wildest dreams?

Now its gets really confusing 

I don’t buy it. Leaders are born not made surely. Like great footballers, golfers, cricketers et al. Leaders are polished yes, improved, honed even, by some brilliant coaches and mentors and academics. But then again…

I also believe anyone can achieve anything. Bit general I know! But that’s what I believe. There are choices that we make that define who we are and where we get to. I know this is a big topic, but stay with me. I know some people get stuck in life, and some don’t have the opportunities for lots of reasons, but simply put, anyone can be anything they want. If they want it enough, and are willing to work hard enough that is.

Nothing is given to you on a plate. You have to earn it.

So which is it? Are leaders born? Or can anyone achieve anything they want to? I think this one will keep me awake at night for a long time yet. Let me know what you think below, leave a comment on the Facebook page, or tweet me @radiojaja, or even email me on [email protected]