ARE LEADERS BORN or are they made? The underlying assumption here, of course, is that an individual is either a leader or not, whether by genetics or education. Period.
The elite of higher education would have us believe that leadership can be taught; especially if you are one of the privileged attending classes at a top tier university offering courses in leadership. But there are others who believe leaders come out of the womb with a mission to lead. Either way, we assume that leadership is dependent on personality traits and/or skills. That once a leader, always a leader.
But is this the case? Is the population to be divided simply into leaders who always lead and followers who always follow? Leadership is surely more complicated than that. Perhaps the question is not are leaders born or made, but rather, can leadership flourish in anyone when the circumstances for it are right? Does context matter?
We tend to remember leaders who seemingly made the impossible possible, but it was always in a particular context. Leaders like Martin Luther King defined by the civil rights movement, Margaret Thatcher defined by the Cold War, and Bill Gates defined by the burgeoning personal computer industry come to mind. For the most part, history doesn’t record how these leaders dealt with contexts outside their defining accomplishments. We examine their leadership and develop theories about their strategies, their skills, and their personality traits. But to understand a broader view of leadership, we must look beyond these historic figures and observe the anonymous trailblazers in our midst. A different picture of leadership emerges.
Hurricane Harvey in Texas demonstrated that “ordinary citizens” can step up to leadership when the situation is ripe for it. CNN captured a video of a local boat owner saying this: “We got eight people that done called for us already. So we’re going to go and get them eight, come on back, and try to save some more.” Crisis leadership in action!
The story of Todd Beamer, a sales rep for Oracle, still produces chills in anyone who hears it. He is the young man who called 911 during the hijacking of United Flight 93 on 9/11 and declared, “Let’s roll” as he and presumably a few others commandeered the airplane to prevent the hijackers from achieving their goal. They were willing to die for it.
Ordinary citizen leadership, however, need not be all about saving lives. Often it is about changing the status quo. Take Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, who took it upon herself to help women attain leadership roles in business, wrote a book about how to do it, Lean In, and started a foundation to promote it, Leanin.org. This was not part of her job.
I’ve had the opportunity in my life to interact and work with some of the most impactful leaders in their fields. Among them are Steve Jobs who returned to the company he co-founded after being ousted in 1985 having learned how to deal with adversity and turned it around with a vengeance. Audrey Rust gathered steam from a passionate group of homeowners in Woodside, California, who wanted to protect the natural beauty in the expanse beyond their backyards and preserved 53,000 acres in Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties under her leadership of the Peninsula Open Space Trust. And Walter Isaacson, having established himself as a talented journalist and media professional in the business world, took the reins of the Aspen Institute during a period of severe decline and redefined it as a purveyor of rich and varied content for the intellectually inclined. Certainly all of these people led others to fulfill a very particular mission and in so doing, created something out of nothing, something that made a difference in the world. But their leadership occurred in a particular context where their competence was significant, their confidence secure and their commitment established.
The truth is, leadership is all around us, and it arises within a certain context in which the leader’s ability (competence) aligns with faith of accomplishment (confidence) and forms a mission (commitment). I call this the Leadership Triangle.
So rather than ask if leaders are born or made, perhaps we should change the paradigm of leadership examination. Perhaps we have given short shrift in leadership study to the myriad people who find their competence, confidence, and commitment aligning with a particular context and jump in with both feet because there is simply no other choice but to lead.