#29 Are Leaders Born or Made?

by Steven Cerri on April 2, 2007

“And the answer is…….”

Once again it’s happened. Another high level executive has been fired from a corporation for lack of fit. Not lack of performance, but lack of fit.

But let me start at the beginning. There has been a lot of discussion over the years about whether leaders are born or made. Some swear that people are either born leaders or they’re not. There are others who would alternately swear that leaders are made. And both groups can provide ample examples of people who either are born leaders or are made leaders.

So what’s the truth? Do I even dare to tell you that I believe I know the answer?

The answer is “both”. Some leaders are born and some are made. Whether a leader is born or made is not so much a function of the person, instead it is more a function of the “relationship” between the person and the situation. How’s that?

Let me explain!

Leadership, the kind that is recognized as leadership by others, is a specific behavior in relation to a specific situation such that the leader is seen as moving others into the future in a way that seems unknown to those being lead and perhaps even to the one leading. There you have it. A beautiful, concise, real definition of leadership!

Now let’s take the next step. If leadership is a behavior in relation to a situation, how might leadership show up? It can first show up as it has in historical terms for the most part. A person has a specific way of moving through the world, (i.e., behavior) and that behavior doesn’t fit the situation very well. Under these conditions the person who would be leader looks for all intents and purposes as a miss-fit. Not a leader. Not very much of anything.

And then the situation shifts. The circumstances are different. The would-be leader continues to behave as before, but now the situation has changed so that it perfectly matches the would-be leaders behaviors. Now all those around look at the person and exclaim “Here is our leader! He/she has been with us all the time!” Under these conditions it looks like the leader was a born leader. They were a leader all along. There is nothing for them to “become”. Under these conditions leadership looks like it is a natural gift. Winston Churchill falls into this category. And there are many others. People who look at this situation conclude that leadership is a born trait.

Now lets look at the other side of the coin. The alternative to the “born leader” is the leader that emerges into a situation that doesn’t necessarily change to fit them, but they change to fit the situation. Under these circumstances the leader will mold and adjust to fit the leadership requirements of the specific circumstances. An example of this kind of leader was Dwight Eisenhower. People who look at this situation conclude that leadership is a learned trait.

Lets bring all this talk up to the present time. I’ll give you two examples of present-day business people who fit each of these categories. This is important….

Leaders who learn to be leaders:

1. CEO of Boeing, James W. McNerney did a great job at General Electric. He has moved smoothly into Boeing’s top position by adjusting his style to most effectively lead that organization.

2. CEO of ??????, actually I haven’t heard about another person like McNerney in the current business world. They exist, it’s just that I haven’t read about them. If you know of anyone who is similar to McNerney in style drop me an email.

Now lets look at the born leaders!

1. Bob Nadelli, did a good job at GE where his way of moving through the world matched the leadership culture at his GE division. Then he was passed over by Jack Welch for the top slot and ended up at Home Depot. Then was fired as CEO of Home Depot. He took over Home Depot as if the company had to adjust to his way of moving through the world. They finally realized that he didn’t fit and so threw him out. (For more information on Nardelli and McNerney see my blog of January 15, 2007.)

2. Julie Roehm did a great job at Chrysler. She joined Wal-Mart and continued to think she was at Chrysler. In less than a year as Wal-Mart marketing executive she was fired for lack of fit. As I stated, she thought she was still at Chrysler.

3. Michael Eisner is another one who fits into the “born leader” category. His style is his style and nothing is going to change it. So as Disney began to change it’s culture to match the changing environment around it, Eisner decided not to change… and out he went.

So here is the point. You can be a leader in a variety of ways and in a variety of situations. If we measure success by the money made, a leader can be born or a leader can be made. There are plenty of ways to be successful. If you want to keep a constant way of moving through the world, then make sure you find company cultures and environments where your style fits and then have at it. You will be limited in the environments in which you are successful and if there is a match people will say you are a born leader. If you miss-calculate, people will through you out and they’ll think your a jerk

If you want to be a leader in a variety of company environments and over a very long time, then you can adjust your leadership style to fit the situation and you’ll be successful as a sensitive and adroit leader. You’ll leave when you want to leave and you’ll be labeled “a flexible leader who can adjust to the environment”.

So there you have it. The world is filled with people who are flexible and those who are not. Those who are not flexible and just happen to fit their situation we call born leaders. Those who are flexible and lead in a variety of situations we call people who learned to be leaders. There is probably no “right” or “wrong” way. However, I do believe that in the world we live in today, leaders who can learn to lead in a variety of situations will be most successful in the long run. Who are you?

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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