Are Leaders Born?

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Are Leaders Born?

Most people fantasise about being in a leader’s shoes. But many believe this would remain wishful thinking because they are convinced that leaders are born. For them, people who influence their societies and workplaces are the ones who are born into certain families, have a certain pedigree and possess certain traits. According to research at the London School of Economics (LSE), leaders are very rarely born. Instead, they are the ones who are willing to take a decision to lead in situations when it is most expected from them.

Leaders are rarely born because:
They often do not carry any legacy nor are they from great families. People who have initiated and propagated great changes are seldom there because of a birthright. They emerged as and remained great leaders out of their own merit. They began with a decision to take on leadership and a determination to lead a cause that they believed in.

Traditionally, leadership skills were always thought to be something people are born with; that leadership is about being genetically lucky. But as researchers correlated scores on IQ and personality tests, they found only a modest and moderate relationship that did not differentiate leaders from non-leaders in any way. Even a behavioural correlation established the same. So, leaders were proved to be non-distinguishable from other people in terms of their intelligence and other abilities. Even as we study history, leaders seldom appear to have a past where they exhibited some extraordinary physical or mental capabilities, setting them several notches above other people. On the contrary, many of the world’s great leaders had been branded below average or just average individuals at some point in their lives. Each of them emerged as leaders because they took a decision to lead.

Leaders are hardly ever exceptional. And they need not be. Leadership is not something with which you are born, it is not inherited, but it is something you decide to do. Leaders are the ones who are bold enough to take a decision when they are faced with a defining moment.

If we examine corporate leaders, we see that this hypothesis holds good most of the time. Take Henry Ford. He not only revolutionised industrial production, but also had such influence over the 20th century economy and society that his combination of mass production, high wages and low prices to consumers is still called “Fordism”. His parents were poor immigrants from Western England where they were evicted from their land in Somerset. They underwent great tribulations as they came over to America looking for a new start.

As a child, Ford was quiet and inward looking, and spent much of his time around his mother. She died while he was very young, leading him into depression. His father despised him for not showing any interest or skill in farm work and literally wrote Henry off, saying he would never amount to anything. During most of his younger days, Ford apprenticed as a low-level machinist at various places, not even earning enough to lead a decent living. He did not own anything that could make him a born leader — no birthright, no pedigree and certainly no extraordinary attributes. Nobody ever recognised that he could do anything worthwhile. But when he took the decision to lead, he went on to be one of the greatest leaders the corporate world has ever seen. He brought on a new age of industrialisation and urbanisation owing mostly to his leadership in the automobile industry.

Even if we look at India, we see several first-generation corporate leaders who have built and led their empires, devoid of any family legacy. We can either learn from all their success stories and strive to be leaders ourselves, or we can retreat into our shell, presuming leadership to be something beyond our reach, reserved for those born with silver spoons in their mouths.

by Sangeeth Varghese / moneycontrol
The author is a leadership scholar from the LSE and founder of LeadCap. His book, Decide to Lead: Eight Decisions That Can Make You A Leader, will soon be published by Businessworld. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

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