Repost: Are Leaders Born or Made?

They are made.

I’ve made it my mission to teach creativity to students from academic disciplines that aren’t traditionally described as creative disciplines. On the first day of each new quarter, I ask the new students, “Who in this room is creative?” Rarely do more than half of the students raise their hands. I tell them that those who didn’t raise their hands are wrong and that all of them, in fact, have the potential to be creative. I tell them that throughout the next ten weeks, I will prove this to them.There have been many definitions of creativity throughout history, but the one I use is probably most aligned with a post-modern sensibility: “the ability to frame and view problems from multiple perspectives simultaneously.” It requires the ability to empathize with people who aren’t like ourselves and it requires agility in order to shift from one perspective to another. I teach creativity outside of the art and design college because I believe that creativity is a necessary leadership skill for the 21st century and it shouldn’t be the sole property of artists. And because this is my mission, I must believe that people can not only be taught to be creative, but be taught to lead.

There is no denying that some people display a seemingly “natural” ability for leadership. Some people seem to “breathe” qualities like confidence, assertiveness, and gregariousness, qualities we normally associate with leaders. However, it’s difficult to prove that by the time a person shows “natural” leadership potential as early as age two to four, that they have not already been nurtured to develop leadership qualities. Of course, some leaders are born in to positions of power, like George W., but that’s another issue entirely.But more important than whether or not we can prove if leaders are born, I worry about the message that is implied by the notion that leaders are born, especially to folks who don’t yet consider themselves leaders. I fear that that stance sends a message that “you’re either born with leadership skills or you are not – it can’t be learned,” thus perpetuating the myth by discouraging less natural leaders from even trying to lead. I believe almost any person who wants to be a leader can learn how to with enough practice.

Many artists ironically interpret the praise “you are so talented” as an insult, because they feel that, relative to effort and hard work, talent has little to do with the quality of their art. Artists become great at what they do as a result of working hard at their craft, and often with no guarantee of a monetary reward. I extend this “hard work with no guarantee” mindset of artists to leaders who work hard with no guarantee of success. Great leaders, like great artists, have grand visions about seemingly “impossible” things. Then they roll up their sleeves and work hard to try to make their dreams come true.
But unlike an artist who is afforded the option of working alone, a leader cannot lead without followers. And for this reason, being a great leader is perhaps more difficult than being a great artist because it requires cooperation from other people. And since creativity is a skill that helps people lead, it frustrates me when my business students, especially management students, tell me that they aren’t creative.

I’m very interested in something I call “The Unlikely Leader” and will probably pursue this theme throughout the quarter, as opportunities allow. As I argue above, we often associate qualities like confidence, assertiveness, and gregariousness with the qualities necessary to be a great leader. But I’ve found throughout my teaching that it is often the more quiet and shy students that have the greatest capacity to think and reflect and thus they have much richer ideas than their more outgoing classmates. But since their outgoing classmates have more aggressive communication skills than they do, it is they, the outgoing students, whose ideas are more often implemented. This privileging of the ideas of a certain personality type is a problem. And I would guess that it’s not only a problem in college classrooms, but also in the world at large. Often, bullies rule.

One approach to solving this problem is to teach quiet students to be more aggressive. In an controversial blog post from media scholar Clay Shirky, entitled “A Rant About Women,” Shirky proposes that his female students, whom he says tend to be shy, could be more successful if only they would be more arrogant. Certainly an assumed arrogance is one approach. It’s not uncommon to hear a successful leader say that they are at heart introverted but have trained themselves to be outgoing and, at least in appearance, confident when the situation calls for it. This is certainly one method for teaching people to be leaders.

But I’m skeptical of this approach. I fear that it may diminish some of the reflective qualities that unlikely leaders have to offer. So I’m in search of another approach to teaching leadership to more quiet, thoughtful, and reflective people. If we can find the right tools to teach leadership to a broader range of personality types, to not only prop up leaders who exhibit seemingly natural abilities for one type of leadership, then we may be able to “make” more leaders who are thoughtful, reflective, and capable of deep, integrative thinking and problem-solving. Looking at the world around us and the problems we face, I think this latter type of leader is the one we really need to learn how to nurture.
This essay was originally written for Mary-Beth Cooper’s course: “Power, Influence, and Negotiation”

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