Reflections from Latin America, on leaders born and made

Reflections from Latin America, on leaders born and made

The past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind, touring South America with little time to rest or reflect. Most days, I have events and encounters that make me think, “I should write about that.” But, as the days go on, I tend to get busy with the things in front of me, and the “great” ideas of yesterday either simply float away or do not seem as exciting with the passage of time. So, I should probably train myself to write more “in the moment”, but I find that not so easy to do with a busy road schedule.

Last week, I was in Montevideo, Uruguay for two speeches and a few planning meetings for future events. I have not spent much time in Uruguay over the years, but I can recommend it highly for its friendly and courteous people, as well as for the food and scenery.

It was truly a pleasure to speak at two diverse venues—a university and a modern hotel convention center—both of which had lively and engaged audiences. To my surprise, the participants asked an extraordinarily high number of questions for Latin Americans, who tend to be a bit reticent to speak in large group settings.

Among the items that generated much interest and debate was my discussion of the classic question, “Are leaders born or made?” Generally, when I speak of society’s myths about leadership, I cite recent research in developmental psychology, studies that are changing the views of many scholars regarding the role of “gifts” or “genius” in highly successful individuals. In fact, many researchers today argue that giftedness or innate talent play only a small part in any remarkable human achievement, if any part at all.

(A quick aside: If you would like to see a bit more about the research in this field, without a lot of the boring scholarly detail, take a look at Mastery by George Leonard, Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or a piece by David Brooks from the May 2, 2009 edition of the International Herald Tribune, called “Genius: The modern view”.)

For many years, the prevalent belief in our society has been that truly great performance, in a wide variety of fields, should be attributed to some rare and mysterious gift of birth. Whether we speak of Mozart, Tiger Woods, or Martin Luther King, people have a tendency to think that their unusual musical, athletic or oratory prowess must be the result of being born with “something special”. In business as well, I often hear people make comments about luminaries such as Steve Jobs or Henry Ford being “born” once in a generation.

A more modern view, based on mounting evidence, is that such “geniuses” are not born. Rather, they develop themselves and their capabilities. The factor that seems to explain the most about all types of great performance is something researchers call “deliberate practice.” A definition and deeper discussion of exactly what this term means I will save for next time; that discussion will take us far beyond the common cliché that “practice makes perfect”.

I have found leadership to be no different than other fields, in the sense that we are discovering more and more that winning leaders are made, not born. Leadership scholars today seem to be almost unanimously embracing this viewpoint, even those who once believed the opposite. Among those whose point of view has evolved in this direction is John Kotter, a well-known professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and author of Leading Change. In that book, he writes of his transition from the “born” camp into the “made” camp, based on a long career working with organizations and leaders:

“The historically dominant concept takes leadership skills as a divine gift of birth, a gift granted to a small number of people.  Although I, too, once believed this, I have found that the traditional idea simply does not fit well with what I have observed in nearly thirty years of studying organizations and the people who run them.”

My coaching experience and encounters with leaders during the past 15 years have led me to the same conclusion as Kotter and other eminent scholars—that leaders are most certainly made and not born. So, how does outstanding leadership, or great performance in other fields, actually happen? More on that, and on the concept of deliberate practice, next time.

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