Were You Born to Be a Leader?

Pepper de Callier

The short answer to this question is no.

To understand why this is good news for you and your followers, please read on.

I am a self-confessed leadership nerd. I have been absolutely fascinated by the topic of leadership since I was a young boy and have devoted my professional career to studying leaders and trying to understand how people become leaders.

Today, no matter what part of the world I conduct leadership development workshops in, one question that I can be sure will come up is: “Are leaders made or are they born?” It’s a question as old as leadership itself. Inevitably, people bring up the fact that some people are born leaders—they have certain talents—and the rest of us simply didn’t win the genetic lotto. “Look at Tiger Woods or Jack Welch or Mozart! It’s so obvious that they represent the height of natural talent, how could anyone doubt the hypothesis that true leaders—world-class leaders—are born with some gift?” I must admit that this is pretty compelling evidence in support of the “born” hypothesis. However, to paraphrase the wonderfully sardonic, academic wit of former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, “The only thing wrong with that hypothesis is that it doesn’t enjoy the benefit of truth.”

In his recent book, Talent is Overrated, Senior Editor at Large for FORTUNE, Geoff Colvin, strikes a death-blow to the future of genetically engineering talented musicians, athletes, and leaders of all types. The cover jacket of his book asks an intriguing and provocative question: “What if everything you know about raw talent, hard work, and great performance is wrong?” Colvin then goes on to explain, using a well-grounded, hard-nosed, investigative reporter’s approach to proving that, in fact, everything we thought we knew is wrong. He builds a case against genetic predisposition and the value of what most people refer to as “hard work” that is well-documented about Mozart, Tiger, and Jack, as well as Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE and Steve Balmer, CEO of Microsoft. The latter two were even marginal performers, at best, early in their careers.

For decades, one of the most respected authorities on leadership, Warren Bennis, has said, “Leaders are made, not born. They are made more by their own actions than anything else.” Dr. Bennis is one of my favorite authors on the topic of leadership and I could not agree with this statement more.

Colvin’s research goes on to uncover something also worthy of noting: years of experience have little, if nothing, to do with excellence. In fact, he cites studies of doctors, accountants, musicians, writers, singers, salespeople, pilots and other professionals in which length of experience had just the opposite effect.

So, where’s the good news I mentioned earlier? Right here: Being a leader doesn’t have anything to do with charisma, looks, gender, height or weight, being a captivating speaker, or graduating from the best school with the highest test scores—none of this, according to Colvin. It is something he refers to as “deliberate practice”. Quoting from the book: “Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements: It is an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with the help of a teacher; it is repeated…a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally; and, it isn’t much fun.”

Good news for those of us who don’t fit into the “Hollywood” model of what a leader must look like. It’s also good news to us of less than genius-level IQs. Additionally, it’s good news for those who are following good leaders today; your boss can become even better. The reality is that deliberate practice, whatever form it takes—tackling difficult projects, developing presentation skills, learning how to influence the behavior of those outside your span-of-control, continuing education—is needed not only to get to the top, but, in today’s hyper-competitive world, to stay on top.

What form of deliberate practice are you engaged in?