Leadership Myth #1 – The Meaningless “Nature/Nurture” Debate

As a young Officer Cadet (about a thousand years ago or so) studying “Military Leadership and Applied Psychology” I was first exposed to the debate over the ancient question “Are leaders born or made?”  Many will recognize this as a specific application of the broader “Nature vs. Nurture” debate from developmental psychology.  Much ink has been spilled on the subject.  Many trees have died.  No definitive answer has emerged.

I would argue that a definitive answer does not exist and suggest that the question is misleading since “nature” and “nurture” are, in this case, not mutually exclusive options but rather the two ends of a polarity.  If a polarity, then the question is not about choosing one or the other but rather about finding  the balance between the two poles that is optimal for a given situation.

We are born with characteristics that will affect our perceived ability to lead.  Height, strength, timbre of voice, even (sad to say) gender are a few examples.  In addition, we acquire at a very early age “default settings” that will also form a  fundamental part of our leadership  ability.  Things like being outgoing or retiring with people.  Things like feeling confident or apprehensive in the fact of perceived challenges.  Thanks to our ability to learn and grow, we each build on that foundation through life with new knowledge, new skills and new ways of behaving.  All of these come together to form what I think of as an individual’s “leadership engine”: the integrated set of learned skills and innate characteristics that will cause others to choose to accept them as a leader in a particular situation or context.

In my experience, being accepted as a leader in a given context means that your followers have determined that you bring value to what matters to them.  For a hunter-gatherer tribe being strong and aggressive are valuable assets.  However, knowing how to execute a successful hunt is also valued. Conan the Monosyllabic may be the champion MMA fighter in the tribe, but if he can’t bring in game he will lose his leadership role in the hunt to Ugh the Scrawny and his uncanny ability to find fresh meat.  In a modern context, look no farther than “Pointy Haired Boss” (of Dilbert fame) who despite having the title of “Director” is routinely ignored by his subordinates, who recognize that his total lack of technical knowledge (and unwillingness to admit the fact) render him incapable of bringing value to any of the things that matter to them.

How do you bring value to those you lead in your particular situation?  What innate abilities and learned skills do you use?  Could you find an even more effective combination that would allow you to lead even more effectively at less psychological cost to yourself?

What does your “leadership engine” look like?    Let’s talk about it!