Are Leaders Born or Made?

In an age where effective, ethical and estimable leadership is essential, yet exceedingly elusive, the controversial deliberation of how great leaders come to be is more poignant than ever.

In a report by the Centre of Creative Leadership, it is determined that the way we think about leadership affects how we perceive leaders, and that the beliefs we hold about how people become leaders affects our evaluation of leadership potential in others. A World Leadership Survey of 361 people at the top level of their respective organisations found that 52.4% of those surveyed believed that leaders are made, with only 19.1% believing that leaders are born and 28.5% of the opinion that leaders are equally born and made. Those who believe that leaders are made tend to place more emphasis on experience, whereas those who believe that leaders are born place more emphasis on the traits of an individual. Both schools of thought share the position that leaders should be participative, team oriented, charismatic and humane oriented. It is interesting to consider that the majority of high performing individuals subscribe to the belief that leaders are made. This may be a reflection of the growth mindset which contributes to progression and professional success, prevalent among individuals at top organisational level.

But what does the research say?

Research in genetics has revealed insightful and compelling findings in relation to this discussion. A paper published by De Neve refers to the identification of Genotype rs4950 which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations. The paper concludes that leadership is predominately based on developing skills, but that genetics are a factor, and that it is the interaction of the gene with environmental factors which affects the emergence of leadership qualities. In a previous study, De Neve discusses the genetic link for happiness, explaining that a variation of the 5-HTT gene could account for variance in satisfaction with life. This is relevant in that studies have found a correlation between positive emotion and success in the workplace, with individuals experiencing positive affect more likely to engage in favourable commercial and prosocial behaviours, demonstrate high levels of motivation and enthusiasm and to show strong collaborative instincts and perform well in negotiations.

Traits are described as ‘relatively stable characteristics that cause individuals to behave in certain ways’ (Van der Vleuten). Trait theories and the supposition that leaders are born purport that certain traits better suited to leadership. However, theories such as Eysenck’s PEN model or Costa and McCrae’s Five Factor ‘OCEAN’ model fail to address how or why individual differences in personality develop and emerge, and the fact that traits are often poor predictors of behaviour. Zaccaro’s Trait Model ascertains that effective leadership is derived from an integrated set of cognitive abilities, social capabilities, and dispositional tendencies; the effect of environmental and personal characteristics. Zaccaro posits that leadership emerges from a combined influence of multiple traits, rather than derived from various independent traits. The multistage model asserts the role of distal attributes (e.g. cognitive abilities, motives/values) and their influence on the development of proximal attributes (expertise, knowledge, skills) which directly influence leadership qualities and emergence. The model proposes that certain leadership traits are predictors of a successful leader, such as intelligence, creativity, achievement motivation, need for power, oral/written communication and interpersonal skills, among others.

In answer to the dissatisfaction with trait theories, Cognitive Resource Theory (CRT) was developed by Fred Fiedler, refined with the assistance of Joseph Garcia. The theory presents a dynamic perspective on leadership, differing by scenario, finding that intelligence is the main factor in low-stress situations, whereas experience is the main resource employed in high-stress situations. The theory presents four predictions: A leader’s cognitive ability contributes to the performance of the team only when the leader’s approach is directive, stress affects the relationship between intelligence and decision quality, experience is positively related to decision quality under high stress and, for simple tasks, leader intelligence and experience is irrelevant. Research has demonstrated that the ability to apply reason and logic can drop up to 75% with even the slightest provocation, and the neocortex, which is responsible for cognitive ability, can take up to 20 minutes to recover from an emotional encounter. If such feelings are frequently triggered, this results in a significant amount of time where logic and technical skills are incapacitated.

As organisations and individuals are becoming more self-aware in terms of addressing the more complex psychological elements of success, progression and leadership, we are beginning to see a shift from the more traditional emphasis on IQ towards a more prevalent acknowledgment of the value and importance of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Daniel Goleman describes how emotional intelligence represented approximately 80-90% of distinguishing competencies found in the top leaders at a global manufacturing company. Goleman identifies two types of emotional competence, personal and social, and further deconstructs emotional competence into subcategories of self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy and social skills or handling of relationships. Goleman elucidates on the two dimensions of personal competence; the competencies that determine how we manage ourselves, and those which determine how we manage relationships. It is accepted that there is a requisite for above average intelligence to master technical knowledge to pursue revered professions such as a lawyer, doctor, business executive, etc., however once the individual meets this barrier to entry, achieves the necessary qualifications and enters the workforce, their IQ and technical skills are usually more or less equal to those of their peers, and so EI becomes the differentiator. Therefore, in order to progress, building relationships becomes more important than technical skills.

Studies have proven the importance of EI skills in the workforce, with research conducted with Sanofi France, where focus was concentrated on the EI skills of salesforce resulted in a 12% annual boost in performance. Another example is that of Motorola investing in EI training for their manufacturing staff, which resulted in an increase in productivity of more than 90% of those trained. Leaders with well-adjusted emotional intelligence skills are predisposed to successfully manage emotions which allows them to handle the stress of the job, the frustrations, disappointments and joys in a more measured and effective manner. Moshe Zeidner describes several processes whereby EI positively influences work performance, including better communication of ideas, intentions and goals, team-work and social skills, and possessing effective and efficient coping skills.

Ronald Riggio subscribes to the belief that many aspects combine to develop a leader into a strong leader, such as professional development, self-awareness and introspection. In this way, Riggio recommends that the best approach for organisations to adopt is to grow their own effective leader through leadership development, rather than searching for the ‘perfect leader’ elsewhere. It is interesting to consider the spectrum of research in this area, with particular relevance for organisations determining and identifying those protégés in whom to invest for professional development and leadership grooming. There are mixed reports in this area, with some findings that there is a distinction between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness, meaning that some traits may predict the emergence of leadership in social situations but in practise have little influence on the effectiveness in a formal leadership role, with other reports supporting that the same pattern of individual differences is associated with both leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. These opposing findings are noteworthy as the process for selecting and mentoring the right employees for leadership positions is crucial to the ongoing vitality and progression of an organisation under effective successive leadership and management.

Much with the general conversation around cognitive versus non-cognitive skills and the most conducive focus areas of development for personal and professional success and achievement, it appears that the debate around leadership and whether leaders are born or made is not an either/or reality at all, but rather a complex combination of the two elements. Research appears to suggest that there are certain biological elements that establish a predisposition for the emergence of leadership qualities and aspirations, yet the social and environmental factors determine whether these biological traits flourish and emerge as effective leadership skills. The ongoing development of an individual, coupled with individual differences and a variety of biosocial factors inspire the belief that perhaps we should approach the matter with a more integrative perspective; perhaps leaders are Born then Made.

What my tennis debut taught me about life

My heart pounds in my chest. There’s a scratch in my throat and I repeatedly tuck a strand of hair behind my right ear, a ritualistic tic that activates in circumstances of extreme pressure. I focus my gaze downwards, with fervent glances at each new arrival. Like a sheepish dog, I shrink further into my corner with every new face that appears. I feign an oddly intense interest in the photos displayed on a cork board outside of the men’s changing rooms, to avoid small talk or any awkward meeting of eyes. A sea of anonymous faces stare back at me from the wall, smiling.

For context, I never played tennis as a child. In fact, I have played tennis a grand total of somewhere in the realm of 5-6 times in my entire life. All singles matches, all social, all with my husband or brother. I had never played competitively or in an organised event, with anyone other than family, and never ever a game of doubles. This would be my debut for all of the above.

I am suddenly hit with an overwhelming melancholy of childhood; nerves and nausea before show jumping competitions, birthday parties or events where you knew no one and were forced to mingle painfully, walking into the older kids classroom at school to deliver a message to the teacher. Just as I had on those occasions, I try to shrink back into my own brain, willing myself not to engage with the situation. I try to make myself as physically small as possible, to sequester my 5’9″ frame behind any prop that I can find. I run through my brain for an escape, knowing that there is none. I will have to pull myself together and push forward. ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’, as the cliché goes. So that is exactly what I do.

I am off to a steady start. My serves are in and I manage to return the ball. I even win a few points. Notwithstanding a near miss of almost clocking our septuagenerian opponent on the head in the course of trying to politely pass the ball for his service, it’s going OK. The nerves are still rife, and I pull my sweater arms up, and pull them down, up and down at each pause, turning the racket over and over in my hand, a rhythmic chorus of nervous energy.

And then.

A few near misses, aimless swings and ludicrous trajectories and my ‘confidence’ is shot. Three double faults. I spend the next three games focusing all of my energy on biting down as hard as possible on my bottom lip to control its quiver. Tears sting my eyes and there is a lump to rival the size of the ball that eludes me throbbing in my throat. I avert my eyes and refuse to make eye contact with my partner. I try to mutter an apology with each miss, but a faint whisper is all I can muster for fear of breaking down right there on the court. I want to go home. I want to walk off the court without saying a word, and quite literally run away from the frustration. My focus is MIA from the game and my motivation to try is rock bottom. All I want is for this to be over, and it is all that my brain can process. In a domino-style cascade, my thoughts rapidly devolve into a flurry of frustrated self deprecation and berating. I am no longer a debutante tennis player having a shaky run in a social game at a local club; I am a FAILURE at tennis. Actually, not just tennis, I am a failure in the world of sporting. How come I don’t run 10k any more? I used to. I missed a gym session last week. Oh God, why do I even bother? How could I possibly have thought I could carve a successful career for myself out on my own – I can’t even keep a ball within the tram lines! I’m a failure at life. I should just quit now, before I embarrass myself any further.

This is the genuine devolution of thoughts gathering momentum, sprouting legs and running away with my sanity as I stand there on the court, distrait; a fully grown woman blinking back the pricking heat of tears like a defiant child who has just been scolded by a stranger.

Then something miraculous happens.

I suddenly become aware of the ludicrousness of this thought spiral, and I give myself a firm mental shake. Am I really about to write myself off in LIFE because of a few follies on the court? I almost laugh out loud at the sheer amusement of it. Then it hits me. So subtle, in such an insignificant situation, I truly came to appreciate the power of the mind and more importantly, our capacity to control its influence. Our inner monologue determines our thought processes, our sense of self, our self beliefs and our self image. We live or die by that perspective. The impact of the monologue to which we choose to subscribe, determines where our energy flows, and where that energy flows, our behaviours, perception and ultimately the constructs of our reality go. In that moment, I took a deep breath; I took a few seconds to recalibrate, centred my mind on my achievements, however small or seemingly insignificant. The fact that I was even there, standing on that court; the fact that I had showed up and put up, that was an achievement in itself. The rest was all semantics. Just like plucking up the courage to take the leap, to walk away from stable employment, secure income and a good job to start my own business was an achievement, regardless of the trajectory of success thereafter. Accepting the challenge, pushing yourself, handling the fear, the consequences, the ‘what ifs’ – this is where we earn our victories; where real success lives and real growth breeds.

After the realisation struck, there was an instant transformation. Every cell relaxed and my mood elated. I was back in the game and I was ready to try with a clean slate and a sense of determined gusto. And it worked. We lost the match, but only by a whisker. I could hold my head high as we shook hands with our opponents. I walked away with a renewed sense of energy, determination and confidence that I can make anything happen once I set my mind to it.

I appreciate that a debut match in a social tournament at a local sports club is not exactly Everest. But it was my Everest. You see, the interesting thing in life is that we tend to perceive our accomplishments, failures and performance in terms of objective standards. That is to say, we rarely acknowledge our performance in subjective terms relative to the degree of challenge or effort required on our part. How often do we compare our startup businesses to those of the industry magnates? Or wistfully compare our physiques to the seasoned athletes beside us in the gym? It is important to set the bar high, to push your limits and to invest your full effort, dedication and spirit into your ambitions. However, it is just as important to ensure that your evaluation of progress and success is calibrated to assess your individual strengths, weaknesses and genuine achievements.

How you assess your progress determines your commitment to perseverance, your levels of motivation and your self efficacy beliefs, all of which directly influence the likelihood of achieving your goal. It is crucial to become aware of your self-talk and engage with your inner monologue to take control of what stands to be either your greatest asset or your greatest detriment; your mind. The role of mindset in shaping our realities and the attainment of our goals is phenomenal. If you learn to harness the power of your mind and work to cultivate a positive, growth mindset, the world becomes your oyster. The capacity to develop and achieve becomes limitless, and the drive, motivation and determination to pursue your goals becomes boundless. Take control of your self-talk, shape your belief system and expand your horizons.

Limits are created, enforced and dissolved within the realm of our minds. Choose your boundaries, or choose to be boundless.

Fuck this shit.

Do you feel this way about work??

Consider that Monday – Friday is 71% of your week. Do you really want to spend almost 3/4 of your time counting down and simply willing yourself not to be present in the majority of your life?

We live in a culture that has conditioned us to believe that certain career paths are the ‘safe’ option. We are taught to celebrate security, stability, sedentary. Soullessness. We hear it in the tone of our colleagues voices, we feel it weigh heavy on our shoulders as we trudge through the morning commute on autopilot, and we feel it before we collapse into bed every evening, performing the routine tasks of preparation for the morning to follow; chipping away at our joie de vivre with every activation of our alarm that further cements our resolve to a life of dull compliance and joyless banality.

We study hard. We pound the pavements (or the virtual pathways of Linked In, at least) with our CV and our self-pitch. We toil long hours and trudge long commutes. We forfeit our time, energy and the best years of our lives to carving out careers of which we can be ‘proud’.

But is the pride misplaced?

How often do you stare out the office window, gazing over a sea of commercial properties and commercial people, a conglomerate of corporate congruousness, clutching your commercial coffee cup and think to yourself: ‘Fuck this shit’?

Have you ever found yourself lost in a daydream of what might happen if you upped and quit and took off without a plan; if you returned to college; if you started that business; if you followed your passion; If you applied to your dream job; If..?

Now consider how many times you’ve felt the thrill of succeeding at a job well done. How often have you received praise and gratitude for your contributions? How often do you spring out of bed before your alarm clock, excited and energised to start the day? Do you look forward to accomplishing meaningful work, innovating and collaborating with your colleagues and driving the organisational mission forward?

So often, we believe that our only option is to tread the beaten track, to stick with stable and to take what we can get – and be grateful for it. The greatest misconception of all is that the beaten track is guaranteed. We have been duped into subscribing to the belief that a stable job is for life, that an income will continue on an upward trajectory with time and patience and that loyalty and slog are rewarded de facto. Not so. Restructurings happen, redundancies are paid and office politics are powerful. Studies consistently show that people who are happy in their careers, who are inspired and engaged and passionate about what they do, those are the people that succeed. And it doesn’t stop there. People who are happier in their jobs tend to be more satisfied in all aspects of their life, and have established much better work life balance than their less happy colleagues. They are more likely to be promoted, to earn higher salaries and to suffer less from stress and anxiety related illnesses.

Taking the leap is not always easy. In fact, it is usually a challenging road with many bumps, twists and turns along the way. But man, is the destination rewarding. If you can allow yourself to be honest, and to truly assess the quality of your professional fulfilment, to identify what you are truly passionate about and envision the life that you want to create for yourself, you are already on the way to making it happen. If you want something enough, you will make it happen. If there isn’t a path, build a bridge. Devise a plan and get to work. There will be challenges and tough times, and there are lessons to be learned. Every divergence contributes wisdom and growth. Remain open and adapt your plan as necessary, but never lose sight of the GOAL. If you are willing to work to make it happen, no one can ever stop you. Ever.

After all, wouldn’t you prefer to dedicate your life to your dreams, than work tirelessly and thanklessly on a vision that does not align with your own?

“If you’re not stressed, you’re LAZY.”

‘I’m so stressed’

How often have you heard this phrase lately? Be it the weary iterations of colleagues, the exasperated utterances of companions or the heavy despair of your own internal monologue – it seems that everyone around us is shouldering the burden of immense pressure, responsibilities and obligations.

In a world where deadlines loom menacingly, the demands on our time continue to compound and constrict our bandwidth and the pressure to attain success and status in a ubiquitous way create more strain than ever before, research is showing that for the first time in decades, adults over the age of 30 are becoming less happy than the generations before them. In a time where opportunity is rife, where the world is our oyster; we are educated, we have all the advantages of technology and scientific advancement, we are in the age of information and unlimited scope for achievement, why is it that we appear to be psychologically unfulfilled? With mental health issues such as anxiety and depression on the rise, it is time to seriously appraise our attitudes to our mental and psychological well-being, and the actions we are taking that are contributing to their protection or decline.

We have created a culture in which we enforce and perpetuate the idea that if you are not ‘stressed’, you are lazy. We have equated ‘stress’ and busyness with a good work ethic and ambition. This is a grievous flaw. The average person is juggling so many balls that they are ultimately going to lose their footing – and it is only after the fact, when it all comes crashing down around us, around our loved ones and friends, that maybe we take the time to re-evaluate our priorities and the (lack of) balance in our lives. Or we hop straight back on the merry-go-round at break neck speed to make up for the time we have lost; until each fracture reduces us to an increasingly brittle, hollow structure, diminishing our resilience and our capacity for joy until it consumes us. Because this is what is happening. This is what we are allowing to happen.

But this does not have to be the case.

The wonderful thing about ‘stress’ is that it is in fact neutral. Stress results from an individual’s perception and reaction to stimuli known as stressors, stimuli that challenge the body’s homeostasis and trigger arousal. The reaction of the body’s attempt to mitigate the stress will depend on our interpretation of the event or stimulus. Distress is the term given to negative stress, which results in a number of negative physiological and biological reactions, such as fatigue and illness. Alternatively, certain stress responses result in increased performance and act as a trigger for motivation; this type of stress is referred to as eustress. The Yerkes Dodson Law, however, suggests that even the positive effect reverses after a certain point, and advises that excessive stress will result in diminished performance over time.

This is where we need to assess the delicate balance between motivation, ambition and a strong work ethic, and burnout, disillusionment and fatigue. Setting high standards for ourselves and our staff is a positive way of driving our development and our progression. Hard work and continuous development and efficacy is vital to personal improvement and career progression. It is striking the balance between challenging ourselves and our staff, and pushing our limits and identifying when we are pushing ourselves to breaking point that is key to sustainable success and fulfilment in the long term.

Setting goals and taking measurable, deliberate action towards achieving them is fundamental to driving ourselves forward. It is imperative however that in defining our goals and our strategy for attaining them, that we also appraise our psychological and physiological needs, and incorporate these into our action plan. We must prioritise the preservation of our mental health and that of our colleagues and staff as we do productivity, innovation and commitment – because in the long run, they are in fact one and the same.

Happy individuals are more likely to engage in favourable commercial and prosocial behaviours within an employment context. They are more likely to demonstrate high levels of motivation and enthusiasm and show strong collaborative instincts and perform well in negotiations. Happiness is positively correlated with individual earnings and financial security and longitudinal evidence supports happiness as a consistent predictor for success in the workplace over time. Studies continue to show that workers who establish a good work-life balance show less burnout, less absenteeism and lower staff turnover.

In addition to the social and performance related benefits, the necessity to manage workplace and occupational stress is paramount to our psychological and physiological health and well-being. The toll that stress takes on our body and mind is tremendous, and the scope and severity of the effects are immeasurable. The consistent and prolonged production of stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol increase blood sugar level to provide energy for the adrenaline ‘fight or flight’ response and can lead to type 2 diabetes. Stress can increase heart and respiration rates, cause muscle tension and can cause erectile dysfunction in males and irregular, painful or cessation of menstruation in females. Too much cortisol as a result of stress response damages neurons in the hippocampus, which is involved in modulating the stress response. This leads to a decrease in the inhibition of cortisol secretion, resulting in more cortisol secretion under prolonged stress, causing further damage. Depression is also associated with HPA axis activation and elevated levels of cortisol and catecholamine. Studies show that depression is associated with lower T-cell and Natural Killer cell activity, which are vital to the healthy functioning of the immune system.

Therefore, the approach we take in mitigating workplace stress and the steps we take to manage it in an adaptive, effective manner are vital to our health, our well-being, and our professional performance and the capacity to achieve our goals. Employers and organisations need to create a culture where work-life balance is encouraged and enabled. Employees should feel supported and empowered to address these challenges in a proactive way, establishing an open environment in which mental health is valued, discussed and protected. Taking proactive steps such as talking it out, approaching colleagues or superiors to collaborate on an effective strategy, collaborating with a professional development coach, and incorporating techniques and healthy behaviours such as meditation, exercise, good nutrition and sufficient sleep are paramount to establishing a healthy work-life balance, which in turn will lead to a happier, more fulfilled life and enhance professional performance and progression.