Thursday, 1 October 2015

Are Leaders Born or Made? - A Timeless Debate

It’s a debate as timeless as the age-old controversy about the chicken and the egg. One school of thought proposes leaders are born that way – naturally intelligent, strategic, visionary and charismatic, able to articulate a plan and rally their teams around it. Others believe that leaders are made – needing ongoing experience, training, development and coaching/mentoring.

So then, what “does it take” to be an effective leader; and are leaders “born” or “made?” We asked 4 sector leaders to share their thoughts


In simple terms, Leadership qualities need to be inborn as well as learned and nurtured. The inherent component refers to the IQ of the person and his/her ability to comprehend problems. The acquired components refer to the educational environment in which the person grows up, the exposure to different situations and the past experience of outcome following the adoption of one of the possible management strategies. This information has to be imbibed, insight developed and then imparted to others in a manner that can be understood by them. Reputation as a leader also takes time to be developed and, once a tipping point is reached, a positive feedback cycle ensures. Leaders can give, can take or do a mixture of both. The most successful leaders are those that give - a quality that is rare in today's world.

Dr Purvish M. Parikh‎, Member of Board of Studies, Maharashtra University of Health Sciences and Director of Precision Oncology, Asian Cancer Institute.


The development sector has what I call 'cause leaders'- individuals driven passionately by a cause- where the drive may arise from a family event or an external incidence. Such individuals are able to devote an extraordinary amount of time and dedicate themselves to the cause. Generally speaking they tend to have a magnetic ability to command a loyal group of followers and raise funds. Do they make great leaders in the sense of building a great institution, build a sustainable team and excel in operations, as well as they do in advocacy? Not always it seems. That’s why the sector seems to need a combination of the roles of 'cause leader' and an 'operational head'. 
Inherent self-confidence developed from background, wealth related security, family related emotional security and moorings is the base. On that are mounted experiences; often experiences are shaped in ones mind by the way upbringing has allowed those to be perceived. Does training help? Yes it would if the base is capable enough – not otherwise. So some people who have the right characteristics and the passion may be groom-able and polished. But is passion or sensitivity or basic value systems trainable? I am not at all certain. Managers are trainable, leadership skills can only be polished. At any rate the modern organization, unlike Devsec, is clearly uncomfortable with “leaders”. It wants efficient team persons who can deliver. Not independent visionaries- the story of Steve Jobs is a demonstration!

Nishit Kumar, Head, Communication & Strategic Initiatives, CHILDLINE India Foundation

CHILDLINE is a national, ‪24x7‬, free, ‪emergency‬, phone ‪outreach‬ service (1098) for children in need of care and protection, linking them to long term rehabilitation.


No one is born a leader! You have to learn and practice and develop your skills through experience.

Starting from when I was very young I attended YMCA summer camps. At camp we were given A LOT of leadership responsibilities and I was able to experience my first big leadership failures. My first big failure was directing my canoe group about 10 kms off course towards the wrong island. This was a big and real life failure that I and my whole team had to pay for by not having dinner until very very late at night. 

That was my first (hardly last) leadership "wrong turn". And that time and every time since, it has been about:

- seeing the mistake (self awareness)

- turning the map the right way up (flexibility)

- starting again (resilience) or in that case 10 km behind where we started in the first place.

I have a phase I say to myself, "burn it to the ground", only to myself, not out loud, I don't want to sound crazy. Because sometimes you fail - not a little bit but a whole lot, and you have to start all over again.

To me "Burning it to the ground" is what leadership is all about. As a leader you have to be the one to light the match and to lead your team in starting again.

Mary Ellen Matsui, Executive Director, Atma

Atma empowers grassroots education NGOs to become bigger, better & stronger.


I personally believe it’s a misconception that leaders are born, there is no hard evidence to support that it is genetic. Excluding birth defects and trauma, we all have the same faculties to exploit. Hence I reckon it has a lot to do with environmental factors that affect the individual. What I mean by these “factors” is - Practice, feedback, role models, coaching, support and recognition- all external factors that “make” a leader! There may be many great people who are born every day that have the potential to be fantastic leaders but might never grow up in the environment that enables them to realize their potential.

There are also countless instances of individuals being "thrown" into a leadership role- someone who entrusted him/her with an opportunity that was bigger than his or her ability at the time of the opportunity, so s/he took upon him/herself to learn and advance and become a leader. A great example comes from the bible when Moses saw himself as someone not worthy of the task of leading the people out of Egypt but ultimately went on to be recorded in the bible as the greatest leader -Visionary, passionate, persistent, patient.

Leadership can be developed over time. It is essentially about understanding other people and more importantly about understanding yourself. Just having the traits is not enough but much “application” is also needed. A tea vendor with humble beginnings, described as "an average student" by teachers, belonging to the OBC category went on to become a Prime Minister not because he was a born leader but by slowly and gradually working his way to the top through hard work and dedication. In conclusion I would say, Leaders are certainly made and on a lighter note- maybe they are born to be made!

Nissim Pingle, Senior Manager, EPJCC, AJDC, India

AJDC helps with life saving work for the needy and elderly and also involved in community enrichment efforts. 

We welcome your views, Are Leaders born or Made?



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