Are Great Leaders Born or Made?

Great leaders are made through education and an escalating, strategically engineered course of expanding opportunities for real-world experience.
Are Great Leaders Born or Made?
In: Column, Leadership, Potential

May 18, 2010

Primitive, actually stone-age, leadership thinking supported the ‘great-man theory’: effective leadership is the result of genetics and a privilege reserved for DNA lottery winners. Research, study, and experience have debunked this proposition. In truth, great leaders are painstakingly made.

Korn/Ferry International is the world’s largest executive search firm with 90 offices. Their multi-functional expertise includes strategic and organizational alignment, talent and performance management, and leadership development. Over four decades, the firm has honed Board and CEO services which include succession planning. A lot of wisdom is distilled in a recent white paper titled: Discover the DNA of Future CEOs. Here are some excerpts:

When asked to pick the top 3 characteristics that indicate CEO potential, perhaps unsurprisingly, judgment and strategic thinking were rated as most important…

It’s what’s on the inside that counts: intelligence, courage and influencing skills were rated significantly higher than competitiveness and assertiveness…

Potential CEOs also need resilience and the ability to metaphorically take a punch. Leaders need steeliness and an air of certainty. Although leadership is all about teamwork these days, someone has to ultimately make the key decisions.

…Would-be CEOs need to be in touch with their emotional side—to have, in the words of today’s business leaders, “empathy,” “compassion,” and “emotional intelligence.”

Successful executives learn faster than those who ‘derail,’ not because they are more intelligent but because they have the necessary skill and strategies and are, therefore, ‘learning agile.’ By contrast, those that do not learn from their jobs, and simply repeat their previous performance in each new role, will never become the most effective leaders.

This is a sampling of a tasty dish. The critical question is how do great organizations stay great by developing future leaders to possess the key, distinctive, diverse characteristics that will ensure success? Do they simply provide a subscription to Harvard Business Review, stock the library with the latest business books, and foot the bill (which can be substantial) for the Wharton Executive MBA? Hardly! They do these things, but without one critical component, leadership development falls flat like an open beer left out overnight.

What is that component? Experience! What kind of experience? Precisely the right kind. Notice:

…While the raw materials must be present, success occurs when high-potential individuals are exposed to a broad range of challenges early in their careers.
Those that do [succession planning] well work hard from the graduate level to put employees in situations to adapt and learn.
Once identified, potential must be given precisely the right set of conditions and support to flourish.
The potential to be a CEO can be nurtured if you’re of the right caliber and are given the experience, international exposure, and ability to lead.

Great leaders are made through education and an escalating, strategically engineered course of expanding opportunities for real-world experience. This principle applies to any organization, not just huge multinationals.

Most organizations are not adept at succession planning and leadership development. It is easy to prescribe to the ‘sink-or-swim’ or ‘learn-as-you-go’ approaches, but the effects of rolling the dice and losing can be devastating.

If you want great leaders for tomorrow, you’d better start making them today! If you don’t know how to do it—seek professional help.

More from The Follow Through
Truly Wealthy

Truly Wealthy

These precious gifts appreciate over time quite apart from the Dow and are unconcerned about interest rates or inflation. It is a good time for Americans to rediscover what makes us truly wealthy.
Todd Sinks

Todd Sinks

“Half of all Americans today say they are satisfied with their jobs, down from nearly 60 percent in 1995. But among the 50 percent who say they are content, only 14 percent say they are ‘very satisfied.”

How You Can Help
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to The Follow Through.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.