Saturday, February 2, 2013

Organizational Mythology #2 - Leaders are Made, not Born

Leadership is a subject of endless debate.  Even defining good leadership is a topic with as many variations as there are authors, but one key 'belief' has surfaced over the past few years:

"All leaders are made, not born." 

I'll risk the peril of being a sociological gadfly, but here goes: that statement is patently false.  It is a mythology.

While I'll admit that leaders can change over time and become better at leading, I categorically reject the idea that all leaders are made, not born. 

Here's my take on the premises behind the statement:

  1. Let's have everyone believe they can be a great leader ... so no one is left out.
  2. The self-esteem movement has taken it's toll on common sense ... and we feel that we may injure someone's feelings by telling them "you don't have the right stuff.'
  3. A belief that, in the right circumstances, anyone can 'lead'. 
  4. Corporate propaganda designed to build employee engagement.  "We are all leaders." 
There are several problems with the notion that all leaders are made ...

  1. Many folks flat out don't want to lead - it's scary, takes too much time, and too much effort, and carries too much risk.  They would rather complain about the leaders they have than become a target for criticism and rejection.
  2. Some people who try to lead - - -  because they have been told they could - - -  turn out to be miserable failures, negatively impacting scores and maybe hundreds of people.
  3. The skill of leading - coordinating multiple competing egos, ensuring achievement of a major goal by influencing people who do not report to you, and taking the blame for things that go wrong, is an ominous responsibility requiring emotional stamina, confidence (not ego), and plain old-fashioned skill.

Here's what the doctor thinks:

  1. Good leaders show up early in life.  They have a natural command of their domain, and they understand how to solve problems.  Some of them may become despots, but most understand the need to negotiate to gain an outcome.  (Study your average Kindergarten and you'll see what I mean.)
  2. Good leaders thrive on leading and achievement motivation (there's a fair bit of research that back up this point).
  3. Good leaders cannot help but lead.  Doesn't matter where they are, in business, volunteer settings, small groups ... they naturally sense how to bring order out of chaos.
  4. Good leaders know how to tap into the natural abilities of those who do not want to lead ... but want to follow someone (more likely some thing ... possible future) that they believe in.
  5. Employees know when they are being fed 'jargon' to help them feel good.  People are smart, and the continual dispensing of a mythology around everyone having common capabilities just doesn't hold up in the eyes of most people. 

Our penchant to want everyone to 'feel good about themselves' as leaders is an admirable, though misguided notion.  And over time, throughout the history of every major corporation, leaders emerge and develop teams and wonderful business plans and outcomes.  Others attempt to lead and find themselves in a death spiral of ineffectiveness.  Not everyone can lead ... some must follow. 

Your organization can benefit from helping those who lead well to lead even better, and helping those who support them to do so at white hot levels.   In that way, everyone wins.  Isn't that what we want for our organizations? 

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