The Myth of “Born Leaders”

Allan Stewart teaching

Allan Stewart is a “Born Leader”

Even though I have heard this statement about me; it is simply not true. There is no such thing as a “born leader”.

The term born leader is one of the most misleading (and dangerous) comments of our time. Years of research have proven that no one personality type or “born with it” trait is conducive to good leadership. People who are good leaders have learned to use good leadership techniques – whether it was by observing someone or whether they were systematically taught.

For me, it was both. I had the good fortune to have been exposed to many good leaders throughout my life. I also had the opportunity to attend many leadership development programs early in my career. The formal leadership development programs allowed me to link leadership theories with the leadership excellence that I had observed up to that point in time. Very good development programs can also enable participants to codify bad leadership practices that they have observed in the past.

The term born leader is often used as praise for a leader who is consistently good. But the term is very dangerous because it implies that not only are leadership skills are something you are either born with, but it also implies that it is something that cannot be learned. When senior managers believe that leaders come with natural talents they were born with, then they start to believe the opposite – that if one doesn’t have leadership talent, they never will.

There are simply too many senior managers – especially in Canada – who believe that leadership training is a waste of time and money. And while there are some ineffective leadership programs on the market, the majority do help leaders become better. The majority of managers that I meet inform me that they are expected to be great leaders – but have received little or no training.

Everyone knows that work units which have effective leaders will outperform work units that have ineffective leadership. But, as long as senior managers believe the myth that good leaders are born, the only way to get a good leader will be to hire one. And since Canadian corporations are among the worst in the industrial world for training leaders the chances of hiring a good leader are quickly diminishing.

If this article has changed your mind about investing in leadership training, here are some things you should consider when choosing or developing a good program:

  1. Adults can better apply leadership lessons if they know exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are. Therefore, use valid and reliable assessments that pinpoint strengths and opportunities for development in your leadership programs. And be wary of those programs that do not include such assessments.

  2. Ensure that leadership programs are engaging workshops opposed to boring lectures. Workshops that use simulations, group work, and hands-on learning are much more successful in enacting change.

  3. Avoid on-line, self-directed programs. Self-directed learning and reading should supplement a hands-on workshop and never be the focus.

  4. Use qualified trainers who know what they are talking about. Workshop facilitators need to understand leadership theory, but they need to teach how to apply this theory to real life scenarios. While having a good leadership workshop lead by an engaging facilitator can provide results nothing compares to having someone facilitate who can provide practical experience to the theories.