“Do I have to be born with an innate ability for leadership, or can I learn to be a leader?”
This question is not only about innate abilities but also about leadership qualities and personal development – you’ll find it hard to have one without the others.
It is a question that’s been asked often over the years. My usual answer to this question is, “What do you think?” I’ve heard many different answers.
One answer in particular, by a Harvard graduate high up in the Washington Beltway food chain, inspired this article. His answer was emphatic “Obviously, leaders are born! Leadership cannot be taught!”
The Gold Standard
Wow, I thought. Wait till the Army hears about this. Gen. Odierno will probably order LTG Huntoon to shut down the United States Military Academy at West Point. That would end what was thought to be a 210-year tradition of excellence in developing leaders. Who knew? But fortunately, the real truth is that the Army is pretty much the gold standard for developing kids into great leaders. Just take a quick look at some basic history, and you’ll see what I mean.
I know, I know, you’re thinking – West Point only takes kids that already have leadership skills and a high level of personal development into their academy, programs, training, etc., but this is not so. Take a look at their mission statement, taken word-for-word, from the Home page of the United States Military Academy website: http://www.usma.edu/.
“Renowned as one of the world’s preeminent leader development institutions, West Point’s mission is to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country.”
The Army is my example, but the same thing goes for the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, etc. They are all into building exceptional leaders with the leadership skills and leadership qualities to match their mission.
Leadership is leadership – no matter where you learn it, it translates to all areas of your life and affects everyone around you. So by now, I hope everyone is convinced that leadership skills are learned. Leaders are built. It’s true that some people have more innate leadership talent, but with a little effort, almost anyone can learn to be a good leader.
People Moving Up
If you look at most companies, the top leaders start at the bottom and work their way up. At Harley-Davidson, an employee that started there in the shipping department went on to become the CEO.
Conversely, there are old-school companies that hire leaders from outside of the company because they haven’t made the level of investment in their people needed to develop them into future leaders. But that’s another interesting story we’ll discuss in another article. Many examples can be found of normal, everyday people turning into excellent leaders seemingly overnight.
I can assure you that their success didn’t actually happen overnight. It took hard work and perseverance. Like Michael Bolton says about his overnight success as a singer/songwriter, “It was a 12-year overnight success”.
How about the shy, middle-aged secretary that decided she had finally had enough of what she saw as craziness going on in Washington, D.C.? She thought someone had to do something. Someone had to take the initiative. Totally out of character; she took a stand, put herself out there, and ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress so she could make a difference. And won! Now that’s being a leader.
In most careers, a person who is starting out won’t possess anywhere close to the levels of leadership skills or personal development they’ll need to get where they want to go. What they’ll need is a healthy dose of focus, desire, and commitment to be the best they can be.
My firm belief from 26 years in the people development business is – Everyone is a Leader! Think about this statement. You are leading all the time. Everywhere you go. You always lead by example, whether you think you are or even want to be.
Everything you do as a parent, teacher, student, employee, manager, spouse, family member, or partner that has anything to do with interacting with people is leading in some capacity.
You have an influence whether you think so or not. So to continue to get better at leading – work at it. Read some books. Attend seminars and webinars. Study other leaders. Make the most of your leadership potential by staying positive, respectful, and honest with yourself and others.
For instance, with the simple act of driving your car to work, you are setting an example of safe, courteous driving. The guy who is zigzagging through traffic and cutting people off is setting an example of impatience, believing that he is more important than everyone else and that anything goes.
Both of you are leading others, by example, to act in the same way. One is a positive influence, and one is a negative one. Thankfully, there are far more positive people, or the streets would be chaos.
Set the Example
You can choose a thousand times a day what kind of leader you’ll be and what type of examples you’ll set. Make your choices well, and you will be rewarded. Your choices are cumulative, so start today and, as the Army’s slogan says, “Be All You Can Be”.
This great country of ours is a meritocracy, meaning everything is based on merit. This is what makes our country great. You are free to be whatever you want to be.
Everyone is a born leader! All that is required is ongoing personal development, learning leadership skills, and developing the leadership qualities, you’ll need to make your dreams come true.
Did You Have Innate Ability as a Leader, or Did You Learn Leadership Skills?
If you have ideas about the innate ability for leadership that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!
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I believe you are exactly right, leadership can be learned. It is also obvious that some people are born with charisma and leadership abilities, but that does not mean that others cannot learn to be leaders.
One of the problems that plagues America today is the philosophy of the Harvard graduate you spoke about. Instead of attempting to grow leaders many universities are content with cranking out managers instead. I think there are enough managers in the country and we could use a few more, maybe a great many more leaders, especially in government.
The army was a great example of an organization that is committed to producing leaders. It has produced some of the greatest leaders this country or the world has ever seen. There are also great companies such as GE who have learned how to grow leaders and have developed leadership into an art form.
What we really need is some of those great universities you wrote about to concentrate more on the dearth of leaders and start building leaders instead of adding to the myriads of managers in America. Clearly if we had more real leaders in this country we probably would not be where we are today economically, politically, or diplomatically.
Tim, your comments are appreciated. I agree with you 100%.
Things are moving in the right direction at many universities in the area of leadership. Courses and advanced degrees are now available to do just as you suggest – produce leaders rather than managers. Capella University is an excellent example.
Thanks for completing the “write for us” form to contribute leadership articles. I look forward to
I enjoyed your short note on leadership. Mothers play a role. They deliver kids. Fathers and mothers nurture kids for Harvard and West Point. But being a leader is a moot point. Unless you are a Kim from North Korea or son of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. DNA plays a role but humans acquire skils and techniques from appropriate training. My 2 cents.
Thanks for your comments Dr. Said. I’m not sure I follow your logic. What about President Obama, Jack Welsh, and millions of others who start with nothing and, through the leadership skills they develop along the way, achieve their dreams? I believe it is all about leadership and in a very, very small fraction DNA/nepotism plays a part.