LEADERS: Born or Made?
The State of Leadership Theory and Training Today
Are leaders born or made? This question continues to dominate the study of leadership today. Volumes of research have been written. But there is little to no conclusive evidence either way. The topic of leadership remains elusive.
However, some of the contributing factors or origins of leadership have become clearer with 50 years or more of study. While no predictive model exists, we know something about "what leads to leadership."
One difficulty in discussing the topic is definition. Burt Nanus and Warren Bennis report some three hundred and fifty definitions of "leadership" that leadership researchers have generated over the last thirty years. Jay Conger follows John Kotter's lead by defining leadership with three dimensions:
Leaders are individuals who establish direction for a working group of individuals, who gain commitment from these group members to this direction, and who then motivate these members to achieve the direction's outcomes.
This definition is broad enough to allow for a wide variety of leader behavior. For example, setting direction can range from establishing strategic direction for the corporation to setting daily production goals for a team or individuals. Secondly, a leader need not exercise all three elements to be a leader in the eyes of others. Leaders can be found all over organizations fulfilling one or all of these roles.
Developing some clarity about the "born-or-made?" debate is essential to a discussion of leadership training. The current consensus is that it is both. In a majority of cases, genetics and early family experiences play the significant role in developing the personality and character needs that motivate the individual to lead. They also contribute to the development of the intellectual and interpersonal skills necessary to lead.
But the majority of researchers today believe that the origins of leadership go beyond genes and family to other sources. Work experiences, hardship, opportunity, education, role models and mentors all go together to craft a leader. An important assumption in this theory is that the raw material essential in people in order to lead is not scarce. The lack of needed leaders is a reflection of neglected development, rather than a dearth of abilities.
Current research suggests that experiences on the job play an important catalytic role in unlocking leader behavior. There seems to be no substitute for learning through doing, making mistakes and improving with time. Kotter surveyed two hundred executives at highly successful companies and interviewed twelve individuals in depth. He concluded that early in their careers his leaders had opportunities to lead, to take risks and to learn from their successes and failures. He specifically identified the following as important developmental opportunities: (1) challenging assignments early in a career, (2) visible leadership role models who were either very good or very bad, (3) assignments that broadened knowledge and experience, (4) task force assignments, (5) mentoring or coaching from senior executives, (6) attendance at meetings outside a person's core responsibility, (7) special development jobs (executive assistant jobs, (8) special projects, and (9) formal training programs.
From these studies certain types of work experiences emerge as the primary developmental forces behind leadership. For example, challenging and multi-functional work assignments taught self-confidence, toughness, persistence, knowledge of the business, skill in managing relationships, a sense of independence, and leadership. Hardship taught personal limits and strengths, while success bred confidence and an understanding of one's distinct skills. Diversity in experiences developed breadth and different bosses modeled values and taught key lessons. This mix set the stage for leadership ability to take hold.
Opportunity cannot be overlooked. Frequently circumstances beyond all of the players' control led to opportunity for leadership to emerge.
Thus, leadership must still be understood as a complex equation of birth and early childhood factors, shaped by later life experiences and opportunity.
Conger and others in the "leadership is learned" (to some degree) school see opportunity in two lights. There is the opportunity of unforseeable circumstances mentioned above and there is the opportunity that can be designed and managed by those responsible for leader development. But he cautions that the best designed programs of leadership development - whatever their structure or intensity - are contingent on the motivational desire of the candidates. It appears that many gifted leaders choose not to lead when given the opportunity. The price is too great, the timing not right, the rewards too small and they settle for something else.
Elements of leadership can be taught. But to be successful, training must be designed to (1) develop and refine certain of the teachable skills, (2) improve the conceptual abilities of managers, (3) tap individuals' personal needs, interests, and self-esteem, and (4) help managers see and move beyond their interpersonal blocks.
The leadership training programs now available throughout the U.S. (and the world) can be broken down into a similar four emphases. Each of the leading companies providing leadership development seems to emphasize one of the following four factors over the others (though all tend to include some aspects of the other three as well): (1) leadership skills development, (2) conceptual thinking, (3) personal growth experiences, or (4) feedback.
Biola University's M.A. in Organizational Leadership is designed to incorporate all four of these leadership development emphases while it focuses on those elements of leadership that can most effectively be taught in a highly dynamic university setting.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE MOL CONTACT:
Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership Dept.
School of Professional Studies, Biola University
1 W.G. Bennis and B. Nanus, Leaders: The Strategies of Taking Charge (San Francisco: HaperCollins, 1985).
2 J. Conger, Learning to Lead, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992), 33.
3 W.M. McCall, M.M. Lombardo, and A.M. Morrison, The Lessons of Experience (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Press, 1988), 3-5.
4 J.P. Kotter, A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management (New York: Free Press, 1990), 124-125.
5 Ibid, Conger.