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Are leaders born or raised?

Think about the best leader you have ever worked for or associated with. It might be a coach, or a team member. It might be your first boss or your current boss. It could even be a politician. It might even just be your mom.

Think about the best leader you have ever worked for or associated with. It might be a coach, or a team member. It might be your first boss or your current boss. It could even be a politician. It might even just be your mom. If you stop for a second and consider the qualities that make that person so fantastic as a leader, what would you say those qualities are? 

In their book Speed, John Zenger and Joseph Folkman use the research of over one million 360 Degree Surveys to determine the qualities of great leaders and suggest how others could emulate them to make better decisions. 360 Degree Surveys are those where an HR department or outside consultant asks questions related to how a specific organizational leader is doing in their job. What they found is that great leaders have some specific qualities.  

The qualities of great leaders include exhibiting a high level of integrity and truthfulness, an ability to motivate and inspire people, while possessing good communication skills. They have the capacity to see the big picture, enabling them to make decisions and get results. Undoubtedly the best leader you ever worked with had many of these qualities. But have you ever wondered if that specific leader was born with those qualities or learned them?

If we were to consider the conditions that require leadership, would that make any difference to our understanding?  Leaders require a situation that has followers that need direction. This might be a team setting or job environment. It could be a political uprising or it might just be an emergency on the side of the road. Oftentimes, leadership is thrust upon an individual who willingly or unwillingly raises their hand to make a difference. Some of the best leaders I know were in a situation where someone was required to be in charge and they volunteered when no others would. Taking the position seriously, they were able to motivate others and achieve results. 

We are often told that the great leaders were bold, brash and dictatorial like Winston Churchill or Donald Trump for example. But if we consider those who have made the greatest changes in the past century, we might consider Ghandi, Nelson Mandela or even the likes of Mother Teresa. People who might on the outside be kind and caring, introverted and passive, yet who were able to keep people focused on a vision and make the right decisions to get there. 

Leadership can be learned. I wasn’t much of a leader all through my early schooling. In fact growing up I let my younger brother make many of the decisions that were formational with our friends. I was never a team captain on any teams. Yet when thrown into situations where I needed to direct staff I learned to lead my teams through trial and error. Not that my leadership could be considered great by any means, but I had to overcome my shyness, learn to make good decisions without being impulsive, and to figure out how to inspire others to achieve the goals we set out. 

Undeniably, it is easier for some people to take charge of a situation than others. In developing leaders in our teams we might be looking for certain characteristics, but sometimes when we require a leader it is worth asking who wants to step up.  I have been surprised on occasion, yet rarely disappointed when I have been patient enough to coach that aspiring leader to grow the skills necessary to lead.  Unfortunately many organizations don’t support these emerging leaders in a meaningful way with the training and mentorship these people need to achieve their full potential. When failure happens, the heads of these organizations blame the inadequate new leader, without reflecting that they themselves need to shoulder some of the blame for their negligence. 

Being born with talent, riches or a good name doesn’t make anyone a great leader. Leadership skills can be learned by those willing to open their minds to figuring out how to overcome the opportunities or challenges that they are facing.  Leadership is not for the faint of heart but our society is in need of people who want to stand up and make a difference. 

Will you?

- Dave Fuller, MBA, is an award-winning business coach and the author of the book Profit Yourself Healthy. Disagree with the argument? Email