Leaders, born or made?

Guest blogger:

Steve GortonSteve Gorton, OUBS MBA Alumnus and Executive Coach, Enabling Development.


“It’s an age old question: Are leaders born or made? If they are made, can we return them under warranty?” (Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle)

And if they are made, how do we keep them in top condition?

It is important to recognise that leaders operate at many levels in organisations, not just in the top team. Here are some questions for consideration and reflection on your own style as a leader:

  • If leadership is so important, why are effective business leaders so rare?
  • Who can you identify as a truly effective leader in your own experience?
  • Why do people so often separate the act of leadership from the leader?
  • Is leadership as something people do rather than who they are?
  • Are we now experiencing a greater culture of managerialism than leadership across organisations and politics?
  • As business and society moves from the machine age through the information age towards the biological age, how fit for purpose are the traditional methods of “leadership” through position power and command and control? (Think dictatorship in business and government)
  • Can we become a leader through academic study or is it a “contact sport”?
  • Is a more holistic and balanced approach the way forward?

Leaders graphicInspirational Leaders understand who they are, tend to have a more powerful voice and make a more profound contribution to an organisation.  My own script has two versions:

Academic – Leaders lead by virtue of who they are.  If leaders want to be more effective with others they first need to be more effective with themselves.

Real life – Until you get your own act together, how can you help anyone else get their act together?!

So, what are some key qualities of an inspirational leader? And how do you score against them?

1.   Authenticity – Truly authentic leaders are aware of their attributes and shortcomings (human beings rather than human doings).  Authentic leadership comes from either of two places – persona or character.

  • Persona is the mask we create to protect ourselves from external stresses and internal fears (might be qualifications, expertise, position).
  • Character is who we are.  It goes way beyond what we do.
  • It is critical to recognise the cues that signal when you are in character or when you rely on a persona.
  • When do you overreact?
  • Under what circumstances do you generally get stuck?
  • When does everything run smoothly and flow?

2.   Self Expression – How often have you held back from saying something you felt was really important because you were worried about how you would express yourself? Have you feigned modesty about something you are really proud about? Authentic expression goes beyond telling the truth. It demonstrates a total congruence between who you are and what you do and say.

3.   Value Creation – Leaders create value through relationships.  Many leaders still have the illusion that they are the ones that really make things happen. Understanding that you do not have all the answers is a major part of building good relationships, having influence and getting results.

4.   Purpose, Vision and Values – Leaders inspire their colleagues through making it crystal clear:

  • why the organisation exists (its purpose)
  • where we want to get to at a point in time (a compelling vision of the future)
  • what is important (values).

They communicate, communicate and communicate the purpose, the vision and the values that will have been derived from inclusive consultation and be shared by stakeholders (see Kotter, Leading Change).

So what?  Because it helps to answer the most important question for you as a leader: Why should anyone be led by you?

Steve Gorton, is an OUBS Alumnus and Associate Lecturer.  After his MBA he founded Enabling Development working primarily as an executive coach to help people start thinking again, bake a bigger cake and make that change from management to an inspirational leader.

You can view a video version of this blog here.

11 thoughts on “Leaders, born or made?

  1. Thanks Steve, the subject is as ever fascinating and I think you rightly identify that leadership is not just the top person’s sport. If however many of the lower level leaders are inspirational without any formal training does this mean that some people are actually ‘born’ as leaders, or is there another facet, that of socially developed leadership?

    Personally, like much in life, I avoid the bipolar choices as invariably there is an overlap and this is probably true in the made v trained leadership debate.

    Interesting you use the term ‘…traditional methods of “leadership” through position power and command and control’. Do you think this is still the case or is it on the wane? I work in, what would be deemed from the outside, an organisation that fits both descriptions but actually is far more empowering than used to be the case.


    1. Garry
      Thank you for your response

      Bipolar choices make for a blog short enough to be published and of course the topic is much richer. I would argue that too many people in a “leader” or “manager” position take this “administrative” either or digital approach when analogue is required.

      I use the metaphor of a graphic equaliser and its sliders with my coaching clients which seems to resonate.

      Command and control – varies from sector to sector and still prevalent – thought for me only 5% of the time. It is absolutely required on occasion.

      I remember a UK Chief Constable client some years ago talking about the fact their role was at least 95% people if not 99% and thus more influential. Rarely was he involved in direct operations at that rank as others had that responsibility – eg in a firearms or public order situation. The real role was to generate a climate for people to excel without the epaulettes.

      Riskily I would say the public sector is more around the command approach (and influenced by the performance targets) rather than the private – though a big generalisation

      1. Thanks Steve,
        Most of my experience is public sector oriented and I get the feeling that the structures and processes are still very command and control aligned however there is a creeping move toward empowerment in some of the more enlightened areas.

        I fully agree with your Chief Constable analogy. Having just finished looking after an organisation of 1000+ I too found that most of my business was shaping and influencing direction and purpose, through people, as opposed to being involved in direct delivery matters. You do need to be confident and comfortable in trusting your people though and I still find leaders who cannot do this.



    1. Peter

      Gosh – the MBA in practical use – whatever next!

      I absolutely agree it is about making it real and practical to move from the academic theory. In my other role as an OUBS AL this is one of the challenges both in terms of translating the material and helping students integrate it in real life.

      One of my friends – a Prof of Leadership elsewhere uses the word “Pracademic” to denote someone who has had a real job as well.

      Sadly the greasy pole of academia these days means few in business schools do – rather like politicians – and it shows

    1. Thanks David

      How many leaders do we know who have yet to be authentic rather than fake it. Politicians come to mind – and their approach may be control rather than management…

      So what about conviction politicians who are true to themselves – even if not to others.

      The obvious topical one is Margaret Thatcher. How about Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton – even Vladimir Putin?

      What do others feel about such choices?

      For those in the UK – Perhaps Peter Marks of the Co-op given their change of mind re Lloyds http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22276082

  2. Thank you for an excellent article. In my experience it’s hard to learn to take feedback and to assess your performance objectively but it’s essential to grow as an authentic leader. Most organisations don’t encourage us to look at our weaknesses openly; no-one has ever told me they are really bad at their job unless it was years ago or a job they weren’t committed to. (I was a terrible civil servant 25 years ago). Developing leaders are affected by organisational culture, social expectations and all sorts of influences that work against authenticity. In my case a strong mentor was the best, if sometimes painful, solution.

  3. Hi there! This post could not be written any better!

    Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
    He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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