I am a retired (21 ½ years) Infantry First Sergeant (E-8) who served in the Gulf War, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan. I am an avid writer, fisherman and outdoor enthusiast. I call Kuna, Idaho home and hope to one day write professionally.
is a question that has been included into the syllabi of every leadership
school I have attended from Primary Leadership Development Course to the Senior
Leader Course. There is no definitive answer to whether a person is born a
leader or made a leader. Instead it seems that leadership is a combination of
intelligence and aptitude. For this
post I will discuss the history of the study of leadership and also how the
Biological approach and the humanistic approach would explain the personality
traits that are associated with the subject of leadership.
To understand leadership and the development or nurturing
of it I thought it was important to look at the way leadership has been studied
over the years. Two early foundations of the leadership concept are; philosophy
and moral law.
Leadership has numerous theoretical roots. Socrates in
Plato’s Republic, said that the “leadership
of civil institutions were to be reserved for the “specially” trained
philosopher-kings, not to the ill-trained or uniformed masses who were meant to
be followers.” (Hays, 1967)Many military classes at West Point or
The Naval Academy still quote Sun Tzu when discussing senior and subordinate
relationships. Aristotle described moral conduct and behaviors that all leaders
should poses, these “codes” influenced many great leaders notably Alexander the
Great. Machiavelli describes the cruelty, dishonesty, and sometimes brutality
that were shown by leaders in his book The
Moral Codes affect many concepts of leadership. Marcus
Aurelius spoke often of the moral and ethical responsibilities leaders were
held too under the Roman Empire. Judeo-Christian teachings emphasize the divine
source from which all leadership is derived from.These
teaching have emphasized the necessity for the up most ethical standards by all leaders.Moral Codes were the foundations for the
formation of the Japanese code of conduct known commonly as Bushido or the “The
Warriors Way” which emphasized tenets such as honor, loyalty, and frugality.
The west had a much similar concept known as chivalry which also emphasized the
duty to your king, to your God, and to your women. In today’s Army Officers and
Non-Commissioned officers are consistently judged on their moral and ethical
The psychological and
trait approach to leadership can raise numerous questions about the development
and the emergence of the leadership trait or quality. Using the biological
approach or more specifically Hans Eysenck’s theory on personality a leader
exhibits some of his personality dimensions on certain levels. The first being
extroversion, a leader can usually be described as an A-Type personality. The
leader is usually outspoken and can excel within the group dynamic, the leader
is usually an outgoing person that has many contacts. Most leaders are usually
not introverted, but in my experience I have seen some of the more effective
leaders that were border line introverted. Much of their leadership was derived
from charisma and their knowledge of their profession, this in turn prompted
respect from their subordinates. Neuroticism is a trait that a leader does not
want exhibit because having very strong emotional reactions to minor
frustrations may not solve the problem but may in fact exacerbate the problem,
especially with subordinates, because a leader needs to be a level headed
person that weight facts objectively without investing to much emotional bias
into the problem. But then again a leader does not want to display the
psychoticism supertrait because he does not want to appear cold or impersonal
to the subordinate. A good leader needs to be empathetic and show concern for
The humanistic approach to leadership would say that the
leader is in a position that he chooses to be in and that nobody is forcing him
to take the responsibility that he has chosen to take. The humanistic approach
would say that a leader takes personal responsibility for the actions he or she
chooses to take or not take and in effect suffer the consequences of their
action or bask in the glory that may come from the decision to act. From the
humanistic perspective a psychologist may say that a leader is ineffective
because they spend too much time planning on the future or reflecting on the
past. The humanistic psychologist may also say that a leader should remember
their past experiences but should not allow them to dictate what they are. We
all know that much of leadership is derived from the experiences that they gain
throughout their career.
Leaders can be classified into different categories. The first
category is the manner in which the leader achieves his or her position. In
informal groups a leader may emerge from the group by asserting himself or
herself.This can be an example of the
“born” theory, in which the individual is able to shut down his competition and
take over. In the Army we often call this “initiative” and it is part of the
Army’s definition of leadership which is; “the
ability to influence others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose,
direction, and motivation.” The charismatic leader is much like the emergent
leader. The charismatic leader is that person that can walk into a room and all
eyes turn to look and people seem to just gravitate towards. The charismatic leader may not have the
technical or the tactical experience that some other leaders may have but they
still have the ability to influence people to follow them an example of this
type of leader is Adolph Hitler.
The second category is the more formal raise in the
hierarchy of leadership.The rise to a
leadership position may either through a democratic process, such as our
elected officials.These leaders were
“made” in the sense that they went through the education process and climbed
through the ranks to get to that position. In the Army I came in as a private
and served first as a rifleman, then progressed to the position of team leader,
squad leader, platoon sergeant, and first sergeant.In my experience it is important for a leader
to progress through the ranks and serve in those positions where “the rubber
meets the road”.Each position
capitalizes on the experience of the previous position.
An example of great leadership can be found in the movie We were Soldiers. In this movie Mel
Gibson plays Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Hal Moore the Commander of the 1st
Battalion, 7th Cavalry. General Moore graduated from West Point in
1945 and attended graduate school at George Washington and Harvard University.
Later in his career he taught at West Point where General Norman Schwarzkopf
was one of his students.General
Schwarzkopf would later comment that General Moore was the biggest influence in
his decision to become an Infantry officer. The 7th Cavalry was the
unit General George Armstrong Custer led in the Battle of the little big
horn.Prior to their deployment to
Vietnam LTC Moore gives a speech to his Soldiers saying;"Look around you, in the 7th Cavalry, we
got a Captain from the Ukraine, another from Puerto Rico, we got Japanese,
Chinese, Blacks, Hispanics, Cherokee Indian, Jews and Gentiles, all American.
Now here in the States some men in this unit may experience discrimination
because of race or creed, but for you and me now, all that is gone. We're
moving into the valley of the shadow of death, where you will watch the back of
the man next to you, as he will watch yours, and you won't care what color he
is or by what name he calls God. Let us understand the situation; we're going
into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can't promise you that I
will bring you all home alive, but this I swear: when we go into battle, I will
be the first one to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off.
And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together.
So help me God."
Moore was able to draw from his experiences leading Soldiers and from his
education which taught him the principles of leadership. These experiences
would later be passed on to his students at West Point. All leaders draw upon
their experiences as a foundation for developing their own style of leadership.
So is a leader made or born? With the proper education I believe that anybody
has the potential to be a leader but at different levels of responsibility.
Leadership is a lifelong process and when you think you have seen it all you
get blindsided by some new situation or a subordinate that you just can’t seem
to figure out.
Adams, N. M. (1992). The Prince. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company.
Hays, C. S. (1967). Taking
Command. Harrisburg: STACKPOLE BOOKS.