The “are leaders born or made?” debate. Said I wasn’t going to go there, but it’s just too irresistible. A couple of weeks ago on the HR Happy Hour, we had a discussion on this very issue. The Twitter backchannel was ablaze with people debating the topic. Personally, I grow weary of the debate because it sets up an either/or position that isn’t very productive. More on that in a moment.
What’s compelling me to get sucked back into the discussion? When a leading authority in HR weighs in on “leaders— born or made?” I take note. That’s what happened this morning when I saw a retweet by Phil McCreight featuring the First Friday Book Synopsis blog interview with Dave Ulrich. A Professor of Business Administration at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Ulrich is the author of over 20 books on HR, talent management, competency development and learning. I’ve followed his work for years and admire how he blends his research with actual practice.
The research on this issue is fairly conclusive: 50/50. We have innate predispositions that affect who we are and what we do (nature) but we can learn and develop and grow (nurture). I am predisposed to being an introvert, but have learned that in teaching I need to become an extrovert to be effective.
So if people’s leadership potential is evenly split between what they’re born with and what they choose to develop, how come we’re still having this debate? As with many debates, I believe it comes down to words and the meaning we ascribe to them. In this case, I think the conflicting opinions stems in large part from how people are defining leadership. To some people, leadership is that “something” that a lucky few just simply have. It’s hardwired and definitely not something you can learn in a training session. Others view leadership in a more comprehensive way—it’s a both/and type thing, consisting of innate traits and teachable techniques.
Personally, I’m one of the “comprehensive” folks— when I say “leadership”, I’m referring to both the innate and the learnable. And of course, when there are varying definitions rolling around, we have room for disagreement.
For the sake of clarity, I offer two sides of the “comprehensive” leadership coin:
Side one: Leadership. At its core, leadership is the ability to attract followers. It’s that simple. One can attract followers to further a noble cause, or to create an army to destroy an entire civilization. In the everyday workplace context, leaders are often seen as people who are driven, charismatic, and persuasive. Yes, these are traits that a person was born with to varying degrees of intensity.
Side two: Management. This is another aspect to leadership that sometimes gets partitioned off into a different category, somehow separate from “leadership”. This is the more operational side of workplace leadership: planning, organizing, delegating, coaching. These functions are important as well, and shouldn’t be discounted. Too often, during discussions on leadership, I see scoffing at the “management” side of things. In my opinion, that’s a mistake. True, at the very top of an organization, it’s critical to have a passionate, focused, inspirational leader who can rally the masses towards an outcome that produces value for a constituency. And maybe there are just a select few who are wired for that role.
However, the reality is, there are a whole lot more leader/managers out there who need to do both functions. They need to lead and they need to manage. They don’t have the luxury of delegating the “administrivia” to someone else to handle. In these days of flat organizational hierarchies, they are the administrators as well as the motivational speakers.
Which brings me back to the “either/or” format of questions.
- Leaders: born or made?
- What’s more important: leadership or management?
When it comes to meaningful discussion, let’s do away with this polarizing structure. Leave the opposing positions to the debate team. For those of us interested in developing leaders, we need all the viewpoints we can get. If in fact, leadership is a two-sided coin, we need both sides to achieve the full value of the currency. Otherwise, it’s just a shiny piece of metal.