When Leaders Aren't Born

Are Leaders Born Or Made?

This is not an original question.  It has been debated for years in books, on line, and in both corporate and academic classrooms.

But I would like to offer a fresh perspective.

I had the pleasure of hearing Barry Posner, bestselling co-author of The Leadership Challenge, speak some years back.  In his talk he tackled this question head on.  With a serious look on his face, he gave us this answer.

"All leaders are born."

After pausing for dramatic effect, he finished with something like this:

"Well, where else would they come from?"

Of course he was having a little fun with this question, alluding to the fact that all humans, leaders included, are in fact born.  Good point, Mr. Posner.  But it hardly ends the debate.

As many have, I've given this question some thought over the years and I've come to a conclusion.

Leaders Are Born and Made

I believe that all people are born with natural abilities.  Some abilities are exposed early, and others remain dormant, sadly never serving their purpose.  Then there are those skills that must be unearthed and refined before they can be fully utilized.

When it comes to leadership I've seen "naturals."  Those who instinctively understand what it takes to set a vision, rally the troops, and motivate others to achieve success.

And I've run across the "unnatural born leaders."  Those who are thrust into leadership roles, unprepared and ill-equipped, who falter, but through trial and error learn what is required, and eventually come out on top.

It is the existence of these "unnaturals" that makes me believe leaders can be made.  Specifically, I assert that skills required for effective leadership can be learned.  Skills that may come naturally to some, but unnaturally to others, like motivating, delegating, managing projects, setting goals, giving presentations, creating budgets, providing feedback. And the list goes on.

The recipe for learning leadership skills requires three ingredients.

  1. Desire
  2. Belief
  3. Support

To illustrate, allow me to share a personal story.

Learning A New Skill

A few weeks ago something unexpected happened.  I won a softball championship.

If you knew me growing up you would have thought this unthinkable.  I was not much of an athlete.  I played a little soccer and basketball, but nothing to write home about.  The first time I ever attempted softball was maybe once in college with my fraternity, and maybe twice after college with a company league.  Neither softball experience was memorable, unless you count how poorly I played.

So then how did I end up on a championship softball team?

It all started when my brother-in-law, who has played softball for years, invited me to join him for a season. Excited for the chance to hang out with him, and also get a little exercise, I said yes.  But only after setting his expectations very low.

"I'm not a good softball player," I told him.

Without a team of our own we asked to be assigned to one by the league.  Because this was recreational softball our new teammates were friendly, forgiving, and very patient as they figured out what to do with me.  After a few unsuccessful tries at infield positions, like short stop and third base, I was sent to the outfield.

As it turns out, I'm naturally fast, and I can catch.  I found a home at left field.

Cut to a few seasons later.  My brother-in-law and I decided to form our own team with friends and family.  But there was something wrong.  My right knee was sending serious pain signals to my brain, making it hard to run.  After a few visits with a doctor I was allowed to continue playing, but advised to take it easy.  That meant no more outfield.

Where was I to play? By this point most infield spots were already accounted for. Except one.


The team wasn't picky, especially since no one else was stepping up to the plate.  Or mound, in this case.  Their only requirement was that I be able to lob the ball the full distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate.  Turns out I could do that.  With that I was elected the new pitcher.

That season we celebrated a first.  We lost every single game.  Looking back, it was mostly because of me. I wasn't naturally a good pitcher. I walked far too many players.  And in softball that's an easy way to lose a game.  The other team simply stops hitting.

So I had a new requirement.  Stop walking people.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

As I set out to accomplish my new goal one of my best friends and teammates, a long-time athlete, shared this quote from the great football coach Vince Lombardi:

"Practice doesn't make perfect.  Only perfect practice makes perfect."

With that advice to propel me, I got to work.  During the off-season, on any Saturday morning that I could steal him from his family, my brother-in-law and I practiced pitching on the local high school softball field.  When he wasn't available, I created a homemade catcher out of a giant orange Home Depot bucket.

This post isn't about how to pitch a softball, so I'll spare you the details, but in essence what I did was pay attention to how I was standing and moving and what my legs, arms, hand, wrist, and fingers were doing.

I tried different pitches until I found something that worked.  And then I practiced that.  Throw after throw after throw.  After a while it was basically a drop in the bucket.  Pun intended.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

As I was doing this I was reminded of what Malcolm Gladwell says in his book, Outliers, about the 10,000-hour rule.  He claims that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

I never reached 10,000 pitching hours, but I certainly pitched a lot of balls.

When the new season came around we actually won a few games.  My self-confidence grew, as did my team's confidence in me.  We didn't win the championship that next season, but we made it to the playoffs.  And that was something to cheer about.

My backyard practice sessions continued weekly and we successfully qualified for the playoffs two more seasons in a row.

Eventually everything clicked and we celebrated our first championship.

The Three Ingredients

I have always credited effective leadership skill development to a combination of activities, with experience being the most important.  Other activities include self-study and learning from others.  I see that concept being applied in my softball story.

But I also see something else.  Something deeper.

1. Desire

First you must have a true desire to learn something new. In my case that desire manifested itself in prioritizing my skill development. I was hungry to be a better pitcher, so I made the time, week after week.

2. Belief

Second you must believe that you can improve.  If I doubted my ability to be better my development would have stopped before it began. I had this unwavering belief that, if I put forth the effort and the time, I would get better.

3. Support

The third ingredient required to learn a new skill is an amazing support group.  In my case, my team.  They did two things for me. First, they believed in me and rooted me on.  For example, during games they shouted positive affirmations and offered feedback on my progress.

Second, and most important, they did their part. Time and again, they played hard and they played well. Doing so gave me the space and the time I needed to improve my individual game.

There was a pivotal point in the playoffs when all three ingredients mixed in a very important way. That point was in our second and most challenging game.

After the first few innings we had a sizable lead.  But then something familiar happened.  I got tired and started walking people.  Once again the other team just stopped hitting.  Those walks, combined with a few well-placed hits by the other team, resulted in a tied game just as the game-time expired.

But the game wasn't over, because in the playoffs someone has to win.  A tie meant extra innings.  The rules changed and we were only allowed one pitch per batter. That meant I couldn't throw any more balls.  That also meant the game rested on my shoulders like never before.

"Stop walking people."

I remembered my requirement.  What I had worked toward.  I knew how to avoid a walk.  I just needed to do it.

It was during those extra innings when I was most hungry for a win, like never before.  And so was my team.  We all wanted it (desire). We all believed we could do it (belief).  And every player dug deep and played their individual roles like champions (support).

After two extra innings with no runs by either team, we entered a third.  We finally scored four runs and the other team scored none.  So we won.

Leadership Skills Can Be Learned

Let's be clear.  This post isn't about how great a pitcher I am.  I will publicly say that I'm still not a skilled pitcher.  I have a long way to go.

And I didn't win the championship alone. Remember, my requirement was to not walk people. At the very least I get credit for not single-handedly losing our games by not repeatedly walking the members of the other teams.

By doing my part, making the other teams hit, I allowed my teammates to do what they do best.  And we won as a team.

This post is, however, about how I overcame not being naturally talented at a particular skill. Pitching. And how this experience reinforces for me that a skill can be learned. And, therefore, leaders can be made. Even those who aren't naturally talented at leadership.

There are many leadership skills to be learned and it requires digging deep to discover strengths and lead from an authentic and character-based place.

I have not likely ended the "made or born" debate in this post.  But I hope I've at the very least offered a fresh perspective that, in addition to the right experiences, learning to be a leader requires a desire to do it, a belief that you can, and a great support system.

Are your leaders naturally or unnaturally born?  What additional ingredients do you think are required for learning an important leadership skill?


[images: wakpaper.com, mahnkinen.wordpress.com, quotespictures.com, bizournals.com]

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