Being the astute self-examiner that you are, there’s a good chance that somewhere along your entrepreneurial journey you’ve asked yourself, “What made me who I am? What made me decide, despite all the fear and potential hazards, to set out on my own and define success for myself?”
Perhaps you’ve even analysed your progress through life, considered the circumstances you grew up in, your personal and social influences—what effect did these have on your abilities as a leader? Or was there something in you at birth, some mysterious strand of genetic coding that inspired you, consciously or subconsciously, to get where you are today?
Whether leaders are born or made has evoked a lot of thought and case studies. The thing is that most of us know a leader when we see one, and are also inherently aware of whether we’re a leader or not. The problem is leadership itself is not easy to define—there are different styles, different ways to lead and there are certainly circumstances in which someone who didn’t know they were a leader or even want to be one find themselves in a position where they are forced to take charge and find they do it well.
Made, not born
In his 2014 paper ‘Are leaders born or made?’ Justin V Di Giulio of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, writes, “Many theories of leadership exist, and countless definitions exist. Authors such as Sorensen [Institute for Politcal Leadership, based in the US] 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.”
The reasons why leadership has long been a focus of study and thought is that most people inherently need or even desire to be told what to do, for ‘someone else’ to take charge and make the big decisions. It is from these studies and philosophies that those with an interest or compulsion to lead can emulate great leaders in history.
Surprisingly, leadership as an academic subject only really took force in the twentieth century. In his paper, Di Giulio credits the work of researcher James McGregor Burns as being instrumental in these studies. Burns’ 1978 lecture on the subject “triggered an avalanche” of research into the subject.
Di Giulio writes, “Since then, many academic institutions and academics [have focused] on the topic, particularly in the past decade. The past decade has seen significant increase in leadership material produced, which continues to be the questions that if a leader is born and not developed, then why study it? Is it nature or nurture?”
American Warren Bennis, widely regarded as a pioneer in leadership studies, was very wary of the idea of a born leader: “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.”
Leadership is a choice
So, if a leader is not born, how did you become one? And how can you become better at it? These are topics that are discussed at length in Evolve’s peer group sessions. In the meantime, let’s have a look at the thoughts of Gordon Mackenzie, Chairman of Performance First, whose ideas form part of Evolve’s leadership workbooks.
“I believe leadership is a calling you cannot avoid and I also believe it is a process and a skill you can learn,” says Mackenzie. “Leadership is the practice of bringing about change, by inspiring and engaging others to participate.”
Mackenzie identifies four key leadership styles:
Coach: Developing individual and team potential, motivation and responsibility.
Manage: Operationally managing individual and team performance.
Influence: Influencing upwards, sideways and externally where no direct control exists.
Lead: Setting direction, vision and purpose, strategic capability and business context.
All of these leadership styles are driven—and their effectiveness determined—by the leader’s emotional intelligence and their resilience to stress.
Mackenzie speculates that leadership may actually be a choice and that we are conditioned to view leaders as “those at the top, or those who hold decision making power over us.” So, in fact, leadership is a mindset that can be learnt and developed through better self-awareness and self-improvement. A more honest, thorough knowledge of yourself enables you to articulate your leadership philosophy, i.e. the type of leader you are, more clearly.
“When you look in the mirror it is important to like what you see,” Mackenzie says. “Ask yourself: Who am I really? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What is my purpose? Where am I going? What am I prepared to do to get there? What am I not prepared to do?”
According to Mackenzie, it is this self-examination that sets a leader apart and gives them an edge, enabling him or her to “make the critical difference when it’s needed.”
- What drove you to become a leader? What is your leadership style? What are your best leadership traits, and which traits would you like to improve?