Leaders Are Neither Born Nor Made

I was recently requested to give a talk on ‘Are Leaders Born or Made.’  My immediate response was that leaders are neither born nor made!  If it is the case that leaders are born – that it is in our genes – then ‘God’ had been quite deficient in the leadership stakes, as mature leadership is a rare phenomenon!  In the political arena few leaders stand out – certainly, Mandela, De Klerk, Gandhi come to mind – but the reign of most leaders is brought down by their own personal vulnerabilities, not by defective genes.  To say that leaders are born deprives individuals of the ownership, credit and the responsibility for the qualities that have brought them into a leadership role.  Similarly, to say that leaders are made suggests that individuals can be moulded to be a certain way, but such conformity to the projections of others does not auger well for a mature leadership.

I believe it is more accurate to say that leaders are self-created and to understand why some individuals become leaders and others do not, one needs to know their unique stories.  Within a family, each child creates his own uniquely-fashioned responses to the circumstances that he encounters; no two children develop the same responses.  Indeed, it is true to say that each child has a different parent and a different family; in many ways each child is an only child.  When any of us examines our own families it is not too difficult to see how each child within the family created his own unique repertoire of responses to the family dynamic and, subsequently, to the dynamics of school classrooms. It is the nature of these responses that determines whether or not a child will go down the road towards leadership in a particular area of endeavour – music, sports, business, art, literature, psychology, sociology, philosophy.

Leadership then isn’t genetically determined, nor mystical and mysterious; it has nothing to do with having ‘charisma’ or other exotic behaviours (for example, the emotional exuberance of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy).

Neither has leadership got to do with just high competence in a particular area of human expression – that is often an addiction, a way of being visible in a world where one’s unique self was not affirmed.

For example, Mozart would be considered a leader among composers, but he knew nothing else other than music.  By the age of seven years he had done thousands of hours practice on piano, with the shadow of an ambitious father hanging over him.  However, apart from his wonderful musical compositions, Mozart was known as a ‘nincompoop,’  He did not at all cope with the physical, sexual, emotional, social, financial and behavioural responsibilities of every day living.  There is also the sad reality that approximately only three per cent of so-called gifted children (potential leaders!) as adults make any important contribution to society.  Future leaders require a holistic approach – it is not enough to nurture a budding talent – there is the need to bed that talent in an inner self-reliance.  For example, an essential attribute to effective leadership is empathy.  Empathy is not simply a matter of paying attention to self and other people.  It is also the capacity to identify emotional signals and make them meaningful in relationship.  It would appear that our present Taoiseach does not possess this emotional maturity.  It is a matter to which he would well to attend.

Whilst there are certain responses that are characteristic of leaders – risk-taking, self-created talents, accomplishment in a particular area of endeavour – there is no guarantee that achievement will follow, let alone that the end result will be for good rather than evil.  Other factors enter into the development as well.  For instance, leaders can be like artists, scientists and other creative thinkers (think of sports and business) who often struggle with personal vulnerabilities; as such their ability to function varies considerably even over the short run, and some potential leaders lose the struggle altogether.  Leaders can often experience their creativity as restlessness, as a desire to upset other people’s applecart, a compulsive need to ‘do things better.’  As a consequence, this kind of leader will not create a stable working or political environment; rather he or she may create a chaotic workplace or country with highly charged emotional peaks and valleys.  What is often not seen is that these descriptions of leadership mirror the unresolved struggles – the peeks and valleys – of childhood, and that this hidden roller-coaster lies within the individual leader and, unless resolved, will lead to his leadership downfall.  Leadership is at its most powerful when it is grounded in the context of the totality of expressions available to the unique self of a leader – physical, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, social, sexual, creative and spiritual.  When such maturity is not present, people can suffer greatly from such immature leadership.  Leaders have a critical responsibility to seek out opportunities to resolve their inner insecurities and those social systems led by them cannot afford to collude with their vulnerabilities.  A social system is a collective of individuals and when the needs of a leader become more important than those of the collective, great neglect can occur.

Tony Humphreys, Psychologist, Author, International Speaker and Director of courses in interpersonal communication, parent mentoring and relationship studies at UCC and All Hallows College, Dublin. Details from Margaret, 021 – 4642394.