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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Are Leaders Born or Made? It Is Nature, Nurture and Much More!

Over the past four years or so I have posted several blogs on the general subject of leadership, that intangible factor which so many of us seek.

In fact I have, like many others, collected a plethora of sayings, articles, comments, statements, concepts and much else on the topic and I have gallantly refrained from publishing the findings under the heading of “50 Great Habits of Successful Leaders” or similar.

The question is: can we define leadership or is it one of those intangibles that we sort of know when we see it but can’t put into words?

One of the maxims that we use in Vistage about recruiting people is that we “hire on skills and fire on attitude” and that always has some resonance for me.

Many leaders in business and I emphasise, in business, arrive at the throne of leadership by form of osmosis which seems to take them through functional success in sales or finance or technology or whatever to the top of the business where the daily demands are completely different from the norm of running a function.

Some years ago I was instructed with around 60 other senior management to attend a three day session presented by an eminent professor from a major university assisted by a group of academics.  This being corporate land I accepted the invitation.

One of the sessions was listed a group problem solving exercise.  We broke out into six groups of ten watched over by one of the academics, and were given a notionally intractable problem to discuss and to offer the best solution. 

Each of the groups was allocated a Director of the company as a member so that fairness would prevail.

We were instructed to elect a chairman, which we duly did by electing our Director and then proceeded to ignore him while someone else acted de facto as chairman.

When we returned to base for the debrief we were told that we hadn’t actually been problem solving and the observer was in fact a psychologist, the whole exercise being one of group dynamics.

Amazingly (or not as the case may be) every one of the groups behaved in exactly the same way, which didn’t say much for the leadership capabilities of the various directors.

The somewhat laboured point I am making is that leadership comprises two major aspects, one of which is inborn and natural, and one which is based on defined shills and abilities.

The inborn aspects, the province of the business leader, include such factors as: 
  • ·      Vision
  • ·      Self-confidence
  • ·      Determination
  • ·      Clarity of thought
  • ·      Desire
  • ·      Drive 

none of which can be taught or indeed learnt.  These are traits of character it seems sensible to devise a list and ensure that each of the facets are constantly developed and valued.  It is a matter of constant personal awareness of the existence and value of these traits.

On the other hand there are features of leadership which are just as valuable and which can and should be learnt and developed.  Typically these could include:

  • ·      Building relationships
  • ·      Encouraging upward communication
  • ·      Handling conflict
  • ·      Developing engagement of the people
  • ·      Recruiting and retaining talented people
  • ·      Building relationships with the customers and the market


I am dubious about the validity of formal training for leadership.  By far the best way to develop and most importantly learn is by joining a peer group.  In this environment leaders can test issues and learn how others have developed their skills.

Is it a matter of nature or nurture?  It is both.  Leaders need to be aware of their inborn abilities and how they can develop them, which is, essentially, an auto-didactic exercise.


In addition join a peer group.  That way leadership sills can be honed, tested, developed and put into action.

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