On My Mind / Essays On Success

Are leaders found or grown?


A client of mine recently was lamenting the performance of a manager on her staff. "He's just not a  leader -- he doesn't have it in him."


This is a common thought that I run across -- that leaders are found, not made. While clearly some people have more natural aptitude for leadership than others, leadership is teachable and leaders can be developed. While I don't think that training and development alone can make a leader great, I do think any leader --with effective training and development -- can become better than he or she is to begin with.


All leadership development discussions and efforts need to start with a basic and challenging question: "What is leadership?"


Jane is assertive and directive, using her organizational authority skillfully to bring about the outcome she most wants.  Mark is personable and friendly -- gently facilitating discussions, planting his ideas and nurturing their acceptance toward their ultimate adoption. Keisha is an expert in her field, and she employs her superior knowledge and experience to convince others that her solutions are the best courses of action.


The difficulty in defining leadership comes in finding a definition that fits equally for the detailed and the visionary, the logical and the personal, the gregarious and the reflective and the directive and the facilitative. If leadership can come from all of these disparate angles, how does one definition sum up the concept?


Here is a leadership definition that works, but it tends to provoke lively debate.  Leadership is the use of power with people toward some desired end.


Let's take a closer look at this definition and through it, see the logic underpinning the components of most leadership training.


Leadership needs people. It might seem obvious, but leaders require followers. There is no leadership on a desert island. Leadership requires communication, relating or connecting to another person or to groups of people, so as a result, effectiveness as a leader is greatly impacted by not just technical competencies and experience, but on self-awareness, emotional intelligence and relationship management and communication skills.


Just as leadership cannot exist without people, it cannot exist without a direction or goal. The very thought of leadership suggests movement. Leadership movement can be motivated toward or away from something -- to reach a desired state (toward) or to escape or transcend a bad situation (away).  But either way, leaders influence people to do something or go somewhere. A destination or goal is required.


The most provocative element of this definition is that leadership is about using power. It is important to note that power is -- in this definition and in general --value-neutral; it is neither good nor bad. Power simply exists, and leadership is the utilization of power with people. Of course, there are many kinds of power, so there is a host of different tools that a leader can deploy. But leaders who are able to access their power, to match the right tool for the right time, hold a key to effectiveness and success.


Personal power is controlled by an individual. Charisma, charm, knowledge, skills, and abilities are all examples of personal power. Organizational power is conferred upon individuals from groups and is dependent on the group's collective will or belief. Positions that bring organizational power involve authority, status, financial control, and the ability to reward and punish others.


There are also hybrid power sources like knowledge of a system and its bureaucracy, knowing how and by whom things actually get done and gaining that knowledge by pulling the appropriate strings, which combines both organizational and personal power.


Power is too often mistaken for authority.  Authority is a type of power, but having authority alone -- a lofty title, a company car, a corner office -- does not give someone the ability to achieve organizational goals. The appointed chairperson of a committee may have organizational authority, but it may be the admin assistant's skill set, relationships, and knowledge of the system that give her the real power to pull the team together and/or get a goal accomplished. I would argue she is the more effective leader.


This is not to discount the benefits of organizational power and authority.  Sometimes people who appear to be slow to influence others can, once in a position of authority, blossom into powerful, effective leaders with the weight and will of the organization behind them. It is a complicated equation. Power is not authority, and neither power nor authority on its own is leadership.


It is because this definition works -- leadership is the use of power with people toward some desired end -- that we know that leaders can be made and taught. While some people find using power and interacting with people easier than do others, the elements of leadership are actions and skills that most people can pick up and sharpen. Relationship management, communication, giving and receiving feedback, understanding and utilizing different power bases -- these are all skill sets that can be analyzed, studied and practiced.



Hile Rutledge

 |  November 18, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  Personal essays Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Not sure, but if you find some leaders, send them over to the financial sector...cuz the crooks are in charge over there, and it's hurting all of us.

Posted by: googlesmoogle | November 29, 2010 8:55 PM
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The definition does not address boldness and vision. A leader has to have 'figured' a way to get there (vision), and can allay fears of the followers in leading them there.

Posted by: SK17 | November 29, 2010 12:14 PM
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I prefer the contingency theory of leadership.

That's the theory which says the person with the skill to accomplish the group's goal will be the leader. In its most reduced form, it basically asserts that a junior high school student with superior math skills can effectively lead a college student who needs additional tutoring in math. It's the fact that the younger student has the required skill to solve the problems that places him or her in the leadership position.

Notice that this theory also strips away the confusing topics of sex, race, religion, nationality, and, oh yeah, charisma. It's also a sophisticated theory of leadership, which means if you're in a group which selects a leader based on sex, race, religion, nationality, and charisma, then your group probably won't be traveling the shortest distance between two points. That said, the most lengthy trip of all is the one that spends time discussing theories of leadership and then follows a path chosen by a leaders who is selected on based on irrelevant traits.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 29, 2010 5:23 AM
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Leaders are born but without proper development or circumstances will not blossom. Most of us are followers and do not have what it takes to be an effective leader. No amount of training can turn a follower into a leader. Along with the more obvious qualities of leadership, a leader has to be comfortable with himself and unafraid of making (and acknowledging) mistakes. In essense, a leader needs to enjoy leading. To real leaders, the prerogatives of authority are only icing on the cake. Unfortunately, most of our leadership programs still operate under the delusion that leadership can be taught.

Posted by: concernedcitizen3 | November 23, 2010 1:45 AM
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The simple definition of leadership is, "Getting the job done through people."

To my way of thinking there are two types of power on the job - assigned power and personal power.

Assigned power is that given to a potential leader when he/she is assigned to a position of leadership.

Personal power is those leadership attributes a potential leader brings with him/her to the job. They could be, and are most likely, the attributes that led him/her to be picked for the job.

Those attributes are:

A reasonable amount of intelligence.

Seeking out and jumping at the opportunity to be responsible.

Must be trustworthy both up and down the ladder.

Praise in public, reprimand in private.

Above all a leaders must not fall short in fulfilling their responsibilities as laid out in the Polices and Procedures for everybody to see and run a mental "fitness Report" concerning the leader.

Employees must feel that their leader knows who they are and that they are doing their job as prescribed.

If I were asked to pick the two words that best described a good leader they would be "willing responsible."

Being of good character makes the application of leadership much easier and it shows up on the bottom line. People like working for a person who likes working with them.

Posted by: ramseytuell | November 22, 2010 6:04 PM
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MBA programs and the like certainly hope that one can teach leadership ... But you have to start with something, some good raw material so to speak. I think it can be developed. Developed and taught are not the same, however.

Posted by: financialnewsyoucanuse | November 22, 2010 3:03 PM
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I think a primary element of a leader is innate. Of coarse a leader will come from any backround. he is self driven, extremely focused and determined. He understands people on all levels and respects others with humility. That's how he gets things done. his power is a biproduct.

Posted by: t_byrd | November 18, 2010 11:56 PM
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OK, but if leadership can be taught and you want to learn, where do you go?

Posted by: catherine3 | November 18, 2010 11:01 AM
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