Leaders Are Made To Be Born
December 2, 2014
Author of The UPwards Leader
Topicsborn to lead, origins of leadership
It's an age old question that gets asked repeatedly every year. Are leaders born or made?
It's a legitimate question as one works to find out what makes, and separates, leaders of varying achievements and skills.
This question has been studied from so many angles, both in layman and academic views, with scientific and inspirational models.
There are thousands of arguments and proofs from both sides of the debate, and depending on your worldview you may tend to gravitate to one camp or the other.
So, in observing this question from a different vantage point, let's answer it this way:
Leaders Are Made To Be Born
Let's start at the beginning. Everyone is birthed with a unique blend of talents and gifts that are displayed at various times of their lives. It's the discovery of one's latent abilities that starts them on the road to develop those traits. As the experiences of their life shape them, their ability to lead grows.
Each person is made over time through differing processes - experience, vision, failures, environment, support to name a few - ever growing and becoming ready for that time that comes in which they are birthed again, this time as a leader.
Then that crucial event in each person's life arrives when it's evident that they must step up and put their leadership skills into play. At that moment, they are born as a leader, and their life and the lives of those around them are forever changed.
History is replete with instances of people emerging from nowhere to lead at a given moment - a crisis, a vacancy, a market need. For example, when the computer industry started to ripen in the 1970s, two young leaders popped out with differing visions and leadership abilities that changed - and continue to change - the tech industry.
For every Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that were born from peaceful endeavors, there is a Sergeant Alvin York or a group of Tuskeegee Airmen that rise to the occasion to protect their country, families and freedoms.
From Clara Barton's efforts on the battlefield to mend wounded soldiers to the bravery and survival of Irena Sendler during World War II, these everyday people were thrust into a larger vision beyond themselves to aid those in dire needs.
Some leaders are born from emergencies, such as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger's masterful landing of a troubled flight in the Hudson River in 2013, or the daring rescue by 12-year old Kamal Nepali to save a girl's life who fell into a deep gorge.
There is the first grader who becomes a leader by standing up to the playground bully. The single mother whose husband died and now must work two jobs and raise her kids and prepare them for their lives as they grow older.
Leaders from all walks of life are being born everyday, in roles we may never see or take for granted. And as many leaders that are birthed into these roles, they also continue to be remade and reborn into greater or newer roles. Their previous skills have been honed and are being readied for that next great need to be met.
Winston Churchill was reborn in World War II from a major British political figure to a world leader and champion of freedom. Abraham Lincoln's failures in elections and business gave him the necessary character needed to be birthed into a most critical role as President of a nation on the verge of a civil war.
Whether leaders are famous or unsung, such as Rick Rescorla saving the employees of his company Morgan Stanley during the Sept. 11 attacks, or Alice Catherine Evans using her science pedigree to champion the pasteurization of milk, we are all being prepared for that time that we are to step into our role as leaders.
Regardless if these roles are a brief word of wisdom that makes a town more unified, or a vision that radically transforms the way an industry does business, leaders are being made every day, with a fateful event in their future that will determine if they can rise to the occasion.
We all have talents and gifts. We choose everyday whether to strengthen them or to not. We choose whether to step up at the appropriate time or passively let it slide by in the hopes that someone else will jump in. We all have a choice. We are being made every hour for what awaits us in the future.
In what ways are you being made into a leader? You already have the skills, just believe in yourself.
Hi, Paul – fascinating essay and an interesting way to consider leadership.
I was struck by several of your examples, especially the mention of Winston Churchill, who definitely did not exhibit a consistently “upward” career trajectory. I think we sometimes give too much weight to a corporate-style leadership arc, where each year brings a smoothly ascending series of assignments, accomplishments, and titles. Most folks do not enjoy the classic career model of always doing and earning more, so the concept that sometimes things go up, but sometimes they go down or even off in a totally new direction is useful to keep in mind.
You also correctly point out the smaller acts of leadership and character at earlier ages which contribute to larger accomplishments at a later date. This is why teachers and others who work with young people have power and potential beyond what we usually give them credit for.
I do have a quibble of sorts: Some of your examples of leadership seem more acts of heroism (Cpt. Sullenberg and Ms Nepali). Both are heartwarming and breath-taking examples of human accomplishment and overcoming of fear in very scary situations, but I question whether they really are leadership, other than simply by example.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here, Paul. I’ll be sharing this thought-provoking article with others.
John, glad this post was thought-provoking and inspiring to you.
As for your “quibble”, isn’t that why we’re all here, to expand our understanding of leadership and sharpen one another? Your view on the examples I gave provides great discussion points, as Mary Schaefer says, and perhaps someone will ponder that thought into a post at some point.
Appreciate your thoughts John, and look forward to getting to know you better!
Great post, Paul. As usual.
You bring up a good question for me, John Smith. When is it important to draw the distinction between leading and leading by example?
Super points here, Paul. Leadership takes so many different angles and is birthed in so many different ways. I have always thought good followers are good because they have a dash of leadership in them (from the standpoint that they can grasp the big picture even if they don’t want to be the ones leading the charge toward it).
I’m presenting a key note address in January on the topic of leadership. Part of the message is to talk about the paradigms of are all leaders born that way, and do you have to be able to do the work to lead it. I really enjoyed your comments and thoughts. Thank you for the insights. FJ
Paul, I thought an underlying point in your examples was clear; Leadership abounds in many people it just takes a moment of challenge to test us towards employing either the natural talents or the learned skills. While many of your examples are historical acts of heroism, we can assume those events and the leaders championing them demonstrated great leadership during other smaller events. Simply because we are aware of the large events could indicate that these heroic leaders regularly demonstrated the finest qualities of leadership for without their solid base of empathy, servanthood, self awareness and courage their heroic acts would, could not have happened. Thank you for a richly filled unique answer to the age-old question.