Are Leaders Born or Made?
by Robert B. Denhardt
Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy
University of Southern California
Tanya: I know this is an old, old question, but I'm interested in how you would approach this. Do you think leaders are born or made? I'm 24 years old. Do you think my leadership approach is already set in stone?
Bob: I think there are certain skills and certain personal qualities that leaders possess that cause others to follow. Some people just seem to come by these naturally. For example, a friend and a vice-president at the Fruit of the Loom company recently told me: "Bob, people keep coming up to me and complimenting me on my leadership And I don't know what they are talking about. I'm just being me."
For this person - and for many others - the basic skills of leadership just seem to come naturally. For many others that's not at all the case. They (we!) have to work hard to develop those essential skills of leadership. But they (we) can do so.
So if you think of the skills and personal qualities associated with leadership along a continuum from "not many" to a "whole bunch," there are some people that naturally fall closer to the "not many" end and others that fall much more toward the "whole bunch" end.
But wherever you start, you can improve your leadership over time. Now, it takes a lot of hard work - not just reading about leaders or watching leaders perform - but spending careful and extended time in analyzing your own experiences and reflecting in a very personal way about how those experiences might help you become a more effective leader.
I say that is hard work because I can't imagine many things more difficult than self-critique and self-reflection. Both challenge our natural tendency to protect our own view of the world; they force us to ask really difficult and personal questions about ourselves; and they can set us on a path to deep personal change - which is, for most, really scary.
Leadership is all about "becoming," becoming all that you can be (to borrow a well-worn phrase). It's about becoming a more fully integrated person.
So, no, I don't think you are locked into a particular set of leadership skills and qualities when you are 24 or 44 or 64 or 84. Indeed, if you don't constantly change and evolve in your leadership, it's not going to work anyway. Leadership is not static; it has to change. You have to change.
To be a better leader, you have to relate to the particular time and culture in which you live. That time and that culture are constantly changing. And your leadership must change as well. In fact, the best leaders are those who can match their personal growth and development with the changing world around them.
Ironically, then, those who start the leadership journey with a "natural" set of skills and qualities - those leaning toward the "whole bunch" end of the continuum - may have more difficulty in further developing their leadership than those that seemingly start out somewhat "behind." When leadership comes too easy, it can become petrified - it just seems to work, so why change it?
But if you don't constantly develop your leadership - wherever you start - you'll soon become out of touch - and less than effective. Change is all around us - but change has to be inside us as well. At least when it comes to leadership.
Robert Denhardt is the Director of Leadership Programs in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program at USC. He is the author of a dozen books on leadership and management, including, The Dance ofLeadership (with Janet Denhardt), Book: Just Plain Good Management, and Book: The Pursuit of Significance.