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Are Leaders Born or Made? The Answer is Both!

Update 9-23-11:

For additional great examples of leaders can be both born and made, please see our latest research on how such leaders balance building trust and maintaining control,  and how they can create lasting positive change.

Update 5-25-10

This post continues to be one of our most popular.  As we write our sequel to our book, we have continued to think about this question, and these are some of the questions and issues we are considering:

  • In light of the fact that we believe that courage, humility and authenticity underpin trustworthy leaders, it would be interesting to discover how a leader develops these characteristics.
  • To what extent do leaders develop these characteristics early in life, or can they acquire them in adulthood?
  • How do leaders’ ability to build trust serve as a foundation for lasting positive change/culture?
  • What developmental experiences contribute to leaders’ ability to demonstrate trustworthiness and building trust with others?

Update 8-19-08:

The Reverend Dr. Jean Smith, the recently retired Executive Director of the Seamen’s Church Institute, who is featured in our book, spoke about this recently at a panel discussion on leading change.  Her husband Peter Smith, who was an executive with McNeil Consumer Products during the Tylenol crisis in 1981, and who recently retired as a marketing executive with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic was also part of the panel, along with Jeff McBride of McKinsey & Co.

All three discussed their leadership journeys, and their change management work involving other leaders as well, in ways that reaffirmed that great leaders are both born and made.  Early experiences in all three of their careers had significant effects on their own later career choices, their leadership decisions, and their effectiveness in creating positive change in organizations. They all possess what I would call innate qualities, including 1) high intelligence, 2) great energy and passion, and empathy based on outstanding communication skills, the latter of which may be partly genetic or learned at a very early age.  Nonetheless, each also had critical incidents and experiences that shaped how they lead, how they partner with others, and how they make a difference.

One set of insights that I gained from their remarks is that effective leaders need to make the most of their genetic endowments by reflecting on their experiences critically, waiting patiently for new opportunities but then quickly seizing them, and as much as any other approach, listening deeply to people around them.


Update 5-19-08

We answer this question in the first chapter of our new book, Trust is Everything — Become the Leader Others Will Follow, just published on Lulu.


Update 3-08-08:

The answer is both, because it takes courage, humility, and authenticity, which are influenced by nature and nurture. Our forthcoming book addresses this question directly as we profile how leaders build trust with their stakeholders. Stay tuned to this blog for details on our book launch!


Third Update 10/07:

I had great honor and pleasure of meeting with the Reverend Jean Smith Friday, September 21st, a week before her planned retirement from the Seamen’s Church Institute. In a number of interviews I did with her staff, the same themes kept getting repeated: Jean is a coach, a mentor, and a protector of her staff as they minister to mariners both domestic and from around the world. In a world which often views seafarers as either burdens or threats, she and her organization provided a trusted safe-haven for the people that bring us goods from around the world and make our economy even possible.


Second Update 4/07:

Here’s another take on the nature versus nurture perspective on leadership: I’ve decided that most failures of leadership are due in part because the leader wasn’t properly disciplined as a child. In other words, they were either “beaten up to much or not beaten enough.” An overstated perspective perhaps, but it seems to explain much to me. Individuals who weren’t disciplined enough or disciplined inconsistently as youngsters grow up to be narcissistic, unethical adults. Individuals who received discipline that is too harsh, or too arbitrary grow up to be authoritarian adults who disempower others they work with.

More thoughts later…


Update 10/2006: This post, originally written on May 8, 2006, continues to be one of our most popular, judging by the number of hits it receives each day. Since I wrote it, I have become even more convinced that leaders are made and not born. Our current deficiencies among our political and business leaders in my opinion, is not the result of poorly-born leaders, but rather poorly-made leaders. As we have demanded increasingly short-term and simplistic solutions to the many complex problems facing our organizations and our society, it is no wonder that our leaders have responded with inadequate and sometimes harmful solutions. We can, and should demand more from our leaders, and only elect those individuals who are willing and able to tackle problems courageously, who will tell the truth to their constituents, and who can learn from their mistakes.

Original post:

I have tried to teach my students over the years that leaders are made and not born. By this I mean that even though some individuals are naturally more inclined to become leaders, based on their early life experiences and yes, even genetics, all people have the capacity to become leaders if they have the desire and make the effort to do so.

I have had my students read Bob Quinn’s books Deep Change and Building the Bridge as you Walk on it. I have also provided what I consider to be some very compelling examples of leaders who were made, not born, including Jean Smith who leads the Seamen’s Church Institute, Bob Lintz, former executive at General Motors, the family members of Two Men and a Truck, International, Dennis Quaintance of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels, my college classmates Bill Bass and Dave Lassman, and many others. Despite these efforts, I still have many students who believe that these examples are really evidence of born leaders. While I believe that these people are extraordinary leaders, I still think they are ordinary people that rose to the challenge of creating transformational change.

What do you think? Are leaders born, or can they be made?

New study finds that employees still not as trusting of leaders as they could be…

A new study by Interaction Associates finds that employees want more transparency from their leaders as well as more involvement in decision making in order to trust them more.  While employees still trust colleagues, they are less trusting of their leaders.

We have often advocated for transparency from leaders, as openness is a key ingredient in the ROCC of Trust.  Leaders often think that they are either protecting their employees or are waiting for the right time to share information when in fact, employees are already aware of a situation and would feel better prepared if they were full informed by their boss.

In addition, many leaders prefer to withhold information in order to retain control.  They feel that if they do not share information that they will be the one to have the power advantage among their subordinates.  These leaders to not realize that sharing information and building a foundation of trust will actually have the effect of granting them more power through greater levels of trust with their employees.

What do you think?  Is being transparent all that difficult?


Determined and Dependable CEOs Win the Day

David Brooks of the New York Times had this to say yesterday:

In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.

These results are consistent with a lot of work that’s been done over the past few decades. In 2001, Jim Collins published a best-selling study called “Good to Great.” He found that the best C.E.O.’s were not the flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again.

That same year Murray Barrick, Michael Mount and Timothy Judge surveyed a century’s worth of research into business leadership. They, too, found that extroversion, agreeableness and openness to new experience did not correlate well with C.E.O. success. Instead, what mattered was emotional stability and, most of all, conscientiousness — which means being dependable, making plans and following through on them.

This is why Reliability is the first piece of the ROCC of Trust.  If people can’t depend on you to follow through on your commitments, if they can’t see you as someone who will stick with them when the going gets tough, they won’t stay around you long enough to find out if you care about them as individuals.  This is also why Competence is the second piece of the ROCC of Trust.  If people don’t believe you have what it takes to make the organization better, then they won’t be willing to entrust their livelihoods to you.

Humble and hardworking are key hallmarks of leaders who go on to build the ROCC of Trust.  This is what we found in our own research on trustworthy leaders who create lasting success.  As only one example, Mary Ellen Sheets and her children have spent more than two decades building up the $200 million enterprise Two Men and Truck, International.  They had to weather challenging business cycles, invent entirely new ways of doing business,discipline rogue franchisees, and battle relentless efforts by competitors and politicians to keep them from expanding into new states.  Much like the pioneers who settled the American West, they refused to give in to those who said it couldn’t be done, and didn’t turn back when most of us would have said enough!  As a result, they have made moving household and commercial goods a pleasant and cost-efficient experience, rather than the nightmare it used to be before they created Two Men and a Truck.  For more, see our book!


Great Leaders Build the ROCC of Trust

In our new book, we highlight how leaders build the ROCC of Trust: by being reliable, open, competent, and compassionate. The stories of these leaders from health care, manufacturing, the food and hotel industries, as well as nonprofits and franchising demonstrate the ways they build trust with their employees, customers, and colleagues. We have been inspired by them, and we hope you are, too.

P.S. Don’t you like this picture?  We love it!  It was designed for our book by Taylor Poole.