Tuesday, February 4, 2014

“Is a leader made or Born?”


“Is a leader made or Born?”

This 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 Prince.

            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 standards.

             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 them.

            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."

LTC 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.

Work Cited

Adams, N. M. (1992). The Prince. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Hays, C. S. (1967). Taking Command. Harrisburg: STACKPOLE BOOKS.

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