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Why Leaders are neither Born nor Made…

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Why Leaders are neither Born nor Made…

A few decades ago, it was firmly believed that leaders are born. However, presently, most experts would bet that leaders are made. But what if both were true? Life is not binary; it has its shades of grey. And this is true for leadership too. Maybe the right answer is a combination of the two.

Another school of thought believes that leaders are neither born nor made, but ‘chosen’. This thought correctly acknowledges that the true power really lies with the people around the leader, who allow him to plan and execute, as well as support him in those plans. In the case of politics, this train of thought is completely valid. A leader is in fact elected to power, and he can carry on his work only if his plans have wider support, either within government or amongst people.

But of course, before a leader is chosen, he needs to develop and exhibit certain traits, and hone them further before he assumes the role of a leader. And that’s where the question of whether one is born a leader or made arises? Are leadership traits inherent in him? Or, does he need to develop them over the course of his career?

What adds to the complexity is that the term ‘leadership’ itself has so many connotations… There is no standard definition for it. In my personal quest to understand the concept, I have read several books on leadership and the lives of leaders… And my understanding of leadership found expression – in simple terms – in one of my earlier posts Why leadership could not be explained in 96,000 books.

For me, a statement that best explains leadership is a quote by John Quincy Adams: ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more; you are a leader.’ Thus, in this relationship between a leader and follower, all you can control are your actions.

If you think of leaders you admire, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, or Mahatma Gandhi – all they could control were their actions.

So, how exactly did their actions inspire so many people? While many – trying so hard to become leaders – are often unable to inspire even a few people around them. If we could solve this missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, we may get closer to our quest.

Now, we could do an in-depth study of great leaders – from historical and recent times – using various analytical tools. Or, we could simply look closer home, and ask: What inspires us? What makes us want to support someone? What are the dynamics between us and the successful leader that makes things feel just right?

I believe there are four sides to it, which can be considered as the SHIP of LeaderSHIP. Just as the rudder of a ship is at the back, so is the rudder of LeaderSHIP – or the ‘P’ – which stands for the problem – the foundation and the direction setter of any leader’s existence.

    • S – Selflessness: A group of people are benefited from the result and there is no personal or hidden gain for the leader himself in solving the problem.
    • H – Harmony: One person alone can’t do much to solve the problem, people need to join hands and work together, and the leader needs to bring these people together to collaborate.
    • I – Impartiality: The leader should avoid any coterie formation/favouritism over the long duration that it takes to solve the problem.
    • P – Problem-solving: There must be a situation (desirable or undesirable), which is larger than life that a leader can help bring about a change in.

If you look at this SHIP closely, you will realize that only ‘problem-solving’ is external to the leader, rest all are a part of the personality of the person – either the person has it or doesn’t.

In fact, ‘choosing’ the problem is also part of the leader’s personality. There might be a number of problems that we face today, but what you decide to work on depends entirely on your likes and dislikes.

This tends to support the school of thought that leaders are born. After all, the basic nature of human beings is set by the time they reach adulthood.

But human beings change as well. And very often this change is brought about by adverse or intense experiences.

These experiences emerge from the environment around and affect the belief, thoughts, and actions of the leader. The leader has to first and foremost feel strongly about this externality or problem…otherwise he will not be able to embrace the difficulties required to overcome the problem, and see it to its logical solution.

If this problem affects a large number of people, and the person inherently has – or later acquires – Selflessness, Harmony, and Impartiality, then leaderSHIP emerges. Therefore we often see that a struggle period gives birth to a leader. This tends to support the school of thought that leaders are made.

For instance, we can ask, would Nelson Mandela have been a leader if he was white? Same with Martin Luther King Jr… Or, would Mahatma Gandhi have been a leader if he was born in England? They became great leaders because of their experiences. So leaders may be born into a situation, and not necessarily born as leaders, but it is ultimately their own striving that makes them leaders.

But there is a fallacy when we say leaders are made. It implies that there is a step by step process that can be followed to make someone a leader. Such an algorithm doesn’t exist. Then are leaders simply chosen? If so, then the real question to be answered is on what criteria are leaders chosen?

As stated above in the leaderSHIP acronym – the self-motivation to solve a problem, to better the lives of those around you, to proactively collaborate to achieve results, and to bring impartiality in the journey; are more like the four blades of a propeller. Even if one of them is inconsistent with the overall diameter and pitch, the optimum speed can’t be achieved.

LeaderSHIP is the ability to maintain the size and pitch of all these four blades at all times. The people around you then reciprocate this genuineness by choosing you as their leader.

Thus the secret of being a leader is to choose the externality that you inherently want to solve, but to do so genuinely… The end result – great leaderSHIP will emerge.


This is just a small glimpse of the cutting edge ideas and insights that you will get introduced to in our 2-day workshop titled Matchstick Leadership®.

Author Profile: Madhukar Kumar is a leadership coach and believes in the philosophy of “Know Thyself”. His non-judgemental listening coupled with thought-provoking questioning has helped his clients to uncover authentic leadership. This article is conceptualised by Yellow Spark and written by Madhukar.