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Are Leaders Born or Created?


Leadership has topped a number of radar screens for the last couple of years.  Academics devote hours to researching and debating this topic but how helpful are their conclusions for business?  Employers sink significant amounts of money into leadership programs and coaching but how measurable is the return on investment?  Individuals aspire to be leaders (or, at least, to become the “boss”) but how realistic is the “if you can dream it you can achieve it” mantra?

 Most people agree that a leader:

  • Establishes a clear vision for an organization
  • Shares that vision in a way that compels others to engage
  • Provides the team with tools and techniques to translate that vision into reality
  • Balances the competing interests of all steakeholders so that not only “what’s in it for the organization (WIIFO) but also “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) can be achieved
  • Takes that first step forward in a crisis, when others may be immobilized, with creative solutions to seemingly impossible situations

 As a certified practitioner of the Pathfinder Career System, I’m intrigued with two leadership questions:  Are leaders born or created? And do high potential leadership programs really work?

 First:  are leaders born or created?  Even though I’ve profiled a number of “leaders”, I’m still on the fence!    

 Leaders are kinda born.  I do see leadership as a core trait and I’m not totally convinced it can be taught, or at least easily.  For example, MBA’s take numerous courses in “leadership” but many aren’t able to translate what they’ve learned on the job.

 Pathfinder has identified Key Behaviours which are seen in Average and High performers in leadership roles.  For example, we see the following traits in a Vice President (as opposed to a CEO or Director): 

  • Problem Solving:  Analysis, Innovation, Linguistics
  • Work Habits:  Decisiveness, Discipline, Efficiency, Profit Awareness, Responsibility
  • Motivational Factors:  Determination, Stamina
  • Self Assessment:  Confidence, Expression
  • Human Relations:  Assertion, Presence, Political Acumen
  • Lifestyle Priorities:  Career
  • Vocational Incentives:  Complexity, Fraternity, Leadership, Service

 Within these Key Behaviours, we also see Discriminating Traits—Decisiveness, Confidence, Assertion, Presence, and Leadership—which set High performers apart from Average performers. 

But how do you know if you possess these traits?  Performance Reviews and Succession Plans often aren’t conducted in an objective, comprehensive way by skilled assessors.  Pathfinder shows if the individual will be playing to her strengths in a Vice President role and whether she has the Discriminating Traits to be promoted further to CEO.

Leaders are kinda created.   I also see that many aspects of Leadership can be learned and enhanced by:  finding a sponsor-champion-mentor;  being willing to take more calculated risks;  learning “next times” when things don’t go exactly as planned;  taking control of your own development and committing to life-long learning;  getting to know yourself really well;  strategizing how to play from your unique combination of inherent strengths.

In Pathfinder, neither Key nor Discriminating Traits are about ability;  rather, they are the behaviours which individuals go to instinctively and use most often.  Each person, when profiled, discovers her own unique set of Traits and how they work in combination, both positively and not so positively. In that way, the actual and opportunity costs of Professional Development can be focused and maximized for both employer and employee.

Second:  do high potential leadership programs really work?  The Globe and Mail ran an article with that title (Jan 2, 2012) quoting a study by Len Karakowsky and Igor Kotlyar  that reported nearly half of respondents rated their organization as either “highly ineffective” or “somewhat effective” at accurately identifying high potential employees.  Only 17% said they were satisfied with their company’s practices.

They went on to say:  “few organizations have a clear handle on the qualities they’re looking for and even fewer can claim that those qualities can be accurately measured.  In short: they don’t know if they’re choosing the right people to train as leaders or whether than training succeeds”.   

Further “90% of respondents use performance reviews as the basis for high potential (HiPo) development…The problem is that current job performance has not been shown to be a reliable predictor of superior achievement in a higher level position”. 

The Corporate Leadership Council says that “fewer than 1/3 of all high performing employees have the critical abilities to excel at the next level of the organization”. 

So…Academics need to continue researching and debating the topic to keep us thinking.  Employers need to re-think the actual and opportunity costs devoted to their current programs vs. the measurable returns on investment.  Do they know what traits they need and want in a Leader?  How can they more accurately measure those qualities?  Should they outsource to a certified practitioner of a valid and reliable assessment and/or provide more formal performance management training to in-house managers?  Individuals need to take charge of their own careers and go beyond dreaming.  Many people spend more time and money thinking about the colour of their new car or their next vacation destination than they do their career.  If leadership is a dream, invest the time and money to see how realistic it is and what it will take to achieve it.