Are Leaders Born or Made?

0770244 (1) (1)When I originally set down to conceptualize this article I wanted to deep-dive into what leadership is and what it is not. Although the subject is still fairly controversial, and more frequently than not revolves around the difference between management and leadership, it is fair to say that most of us have a pretty good idea what it is and what it is not. Great leadership guru, and a former CEO of GE Jack Welch, summed it up very succinctly in these words: “A leader’s role is not to control people or stay on top of things, but rather to guide, energize and excite”. And I did get excited, as intended, and thought why not touch the nerve and dive into an even more controversial subject: Are the leaders born or made? Is the ability to guide, energize and excite driven by a natural talent, or would a proper application of a leadership charm school do just as well?

Another great management and leadership guru Peter F. Drucker has offered a very controversial answer to these questions with his statement that: “Leaders are born, not made and leadership can not be created, promoted, taught or learned”. Subsequently this statement was softened by a notion that this only applies to the true “natural leaders” that are in such a short supply that they can not be solely relied upon, and that the more realistic and applied picture would suggest that leaders are neither born, nor made, exclusively. So how do we make some sense out of all this?

To embark upon this quest, let us go back to what leadership is; and in the most simplified, yet impactful way leadership is recognized and associated with the influence. Can we exert the influence without a relationship? The answer is yes, but generally not the kind that would create a progressive culture and engaging workforce that drives customer satisfaction and repeat business, on an ongoing basis. Leadership is more art than science and relational competencies are increasingly more important in the new age leaders who operate in the highly complex and dynamic world. In simple terms we can say with certainty that leadership is about the relationship between the leader and the people around him/her. This statement leads to another question: Can a leader form highly functional and resonant relationships without competencies in these four dimensions: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and relationship management?

Now, the story unfolds toward my favorite subject: emotional intelligence (EI) and leadership effectiveness. It still amazes me how after a quarter of the century since the term emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) was first time introduced, and later heavily popularized by the work of a great author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, there is a still very limited understanding of the construct and even more limited application in the world of business. The inception of the term and the theory behind it coincides with the late stages of the industrial era, where people were a liability and machines were an asset, and therefore its acceptance was impeded by a stigma of a “pipe dream”, another new HR flavor, or an image of leaders holding hands with their reports and singing kumbaya.

Fast forward 25 years and we are faced with a large body of knowledge and supporting research that conclusively outlines a strong link between leadership effectiveness and emotional intelligence. The nineties were declared by the US Congress and the president as the decade of the brain, and now we have even more supporting evidence stemming from the research in the field of the neuroscience.

So what does the neuroscience say? It says that our brain’s limbic system or our emotional center has an “open loop” nature, which depends on external sources to manage itself. Therefore leaders’ emotional intelligence or lack of thereof, has a critical impact on his/her relationships and the culture and environment that they create. Resonant leaders who display a high degree of EI create upbeat environments that foster mental efficiency. They coach with compassion and stimulate dramatic improvements in emotional, social and cognitive intelligence competencies, which in the end, with proper guidance and support, enhance the bottom line.

Now back to the neuroscience, which recognizes two emotional networks, among the rest: mirror neuron network and hemodynamic sympathetic network that enable us to tune into others’ emotional networks and mimic the same. All this happens on the purely subconscious level and transpires within a fraction of a second, creating either positive or negative emotional contagion, with their either positive or negative outcomes. Anybody who has ever had a dissonant leader for a boss, with his/her meat grinding and soul crashing command and control, and constant pace setting styles of leadership, while fully stripped from any form of compassion, would easily and instantaneously appreciate what neuroscience has to say.

Can these leaders create a track record of a strong performance? Of course they can; let us not forget that fear is a powerful motivator. So let us go back to more uplifting subject of the neuroscience and resonant leadership: Resonant leadership, underpinned by EI, has a capacity to offer ongoing renewal through the sense of: hope, mindfulness, compassion and playfulness, so critical these days where everybody is facing an accumulation of the chronic stress as a result of the complexity and the demands of the modern life, and not just the business environment. If we approach leadership and its effectiveness through the framework of EI, then it is important to note that our range of emotional skills is relatively set by our mid-twenties, and the accompanying behaviors are by that time deep seated habits.

So, in that respect, are the leaders born or made? Luckily EI leaves us with the ability to conclude that the leaders are first born and then they are made, since EI competencies, as a unique talent, can be learnt with a conscious effort and they generally increase with the maturity. In conclusion to this article I would like to quote great words of wisdom from a fantastic book titled: “First Break All the Rules”: “People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough”. Therefore, leaders should be selected based on their talents and not the skills or knowledge, and EI is one of the most critical talents that the modern leadership arena demands.

Sasha Yovanovich, MSc, CSCP, P.Log