Leaders are made, not born


Many of us have heard the famous quote from the U.S. writer and sociologist Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” And more of us use the term of leader, which finds application in many situations of everyday life. Whether in movies, in sports or at work, the word leader gets often used. Its definition seems natural, well understood by everyone. For many, leadership is an ability to have, innate in people who practice it. It seems however that this definition is obsolete (Stanford, 2005). Undoubtedly, the concept of leadership carries out its lot of interrogations. It is therefore interesting, through examples and more theoretical concepts, to provide an overall picture of the different ways of exercising leadership. The aim here is to present the conceptual characteristics of leadership, and see whether leaders are born or made. We will thus at first outline a rational definition of leadership. Then, in a second step, we will see how leadership differs from the management approach. We will also study the different behaviors and characteristics of the leader. Finally, we will conclude this essay with an analysis of relations between the leader and his group.

Northouse (2007) defines leadership as comprising all activities by which an individual influences a group in order to achieve common goals. Moorhead & Griffin (1998), in turn, define the term leadership more accurately as “both a process and a property”. It is a process of influencing, motivating, and making others able to contribute to the effectiveness and success of organizations they are part of. More specifically, the term defines the ability (or property) of an individual to successfully perform such an influence. Hence, we say of this individual that he is a leader who demonstrates some leadership. We can list three characteristics that make up a leader. Firstly, the vision. The leader knows where he wants and needs to go (Bennis et. al. 1985). The leader is able to be conceptual and overview things with more distance than his peers. A leader is also someone who knows how to spread confidence to the group. For Hollander (1958), the leader must first follow the values of his group in order to guide it. Finally, adhesion also characterizes leadership. The leader can harness the energy of the group towards the achievement of a common goal so that all individuals can provide the best of themselves. The concept lies more in the art of persuasion, and guidance, than in threatening, prescribing or imposing. Homans (1961) also notes that the leader is one who brings the most benefits to the group to which he belongs and that the group, in return, respects his influence.

The position of a recognized team chief is the result of a long and complex process in which he must constantly compete with other members of his group. But this position is not always the result of a unique process. The terms manager and leader need to be distinguished. The difference lies in the way power and responsibilities arise. Surely, the manager imposes himself to the group through his hierarchy who thinks he is capable of leading a team or a mission. The power of the manager thus results of the organizational structure and the inequalities it creates. The emergence of the leader is totally different; different approaches can be undertaken to determine this emergence (Smith, 1998). According to a situationist approach, the emergence of a leader will be due to the situation in which the group is, and to factors such as the amount of information an individual can provide in relation to such given situation. For example, a column of people walks in the desert. Suddenly, they realize they are lost. A Bedouin, devoid of any quality, will get the authority because he knows the path. The interactionist approach states that a leader is formed when a given individual meet a given situation. One remarkable example is that of Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York, who successfully gathered all his citizens after 9/11, although he was a cold and unsocial individual. Finally, the personalist approach assumes that there are some personal factors of leadership in individuals identified as leaders. This would mean that some individuals have a predisposition to become leaders.

Max Weber (1922) is the first to put a name on a leader’s predisposition: charisma. For Weber, charisma is a spiritual component of the person: the individual has a set of specific qualities that impulses adhesion of the members of a group to the leader’s role. And it is true that some characteristics are common to leaders: ambition, self esteem, self-confidence.  However, there is no typical profile of the leader: age, size, beauty for example, have little significance. Charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs or Barrack Obama have very little physical traits in common. Moreover, several types of entities can confer different leadership means. A person who has authority (e.g. a Member of Parliament) does not enjoy leadership for the same reasons as a person who has a competence (e.g. a tourist guide). Finally, Sherif (1966) finds that one is not leading in all the groups he frequents. The leader is one who maintains the group’s values, and those values may change over time and space. Hence it seems obvious that, in turn, the groups may change of leader.

While there is no particular type of leader, as he emerges from different situations and with varied relationships that he has forged with members of his group, we can assume that the same is true for the way leadership is exercised. Research on leadership behaviors and their relations with group’s effectiveness highlights two distinct dimensions of the leadership art: a “considering” dimension and a “structural” dimension (Lewin et. al. 1939). The ”considering” dimension refers to the leadership behavior focused on the employee. The leader must show his concern for the welfare of his group members. He can be for instance, attentive, friendly and confident. A parallel study (Bales, 1958) shows that the leader has a “socio-emotional” function. This function combines the efforts of the leader to create a dynamic team spirit and resolve conflicts. According to the same author, the leader will adapt his behavior according to two opposing theories: the X and Y theories. If leadership is adapted from the X theory, the leader has a pessimistic view of individuals. He contends that each of them does not appreciate their work and shows little ambition. The leader will therefore be inclined to use punishments and rewards to motivate his troops. Instead, if the leader is a fellow of the Y theory, he has a more optimistic approach of his staff and believes that individuals see their work as a normal part of their lives that may help them to develop. The leader will thus try to best meet their expectations and will put them in parallel with the objectives of the organization. The member will then feel included in the enterprise. On the other side, the “structural” dimension means that the leadership behavior is focused on employment and management. The leader must show his concern for the needs of the organization. For example, he must plan, organize, coordinate and evaluate. Bales talks here about a “task-function” which contains the proceedings of the leader to set goals, assess performance and plan the work. The leader finds himself similar characteristics to the manager: he becomes a manager-leader. Stodgill and Coons (1957) also show two dimensions specific to leadership behavior: consideration (i.e. the well-being of individuals is preferred) and structure initiation (i.e. the group’s efficiency is enacted). Likert (1967) goes further and establishes an ideal model of organization, entitled “system 4”, whereas there are four types of organizations from a more authoritative behavioral approach to a more human one: despot, consultative, participative and philanthropist (caring). However, only three usually get retained: the authoritarian leadership (only the leader has the power to decide), the democratic leadership (the leader seeks the opinion of the group) and the laissez-faire leadership (the leader does not take any decision).

Various studies on leadership tend to enumerate the different behaviors a leader may have. It is therefore interesting to see what effects these different behaviors may have on the relationship between the leader and his group. Blake and Mouton (1964) performed an analysis of the leadership behavior and its impact on the group, by integrating into two dimensions the interest in human and the interest in production that a leader has. They were able to distinguish five variants from the leader who promotes the production to the detriment of the human factor, to the one who focuses on control. They found that the type of leadership determines the emotional, social and cognitive group behaviors. Thus, a democratic leader will obtain a greater group’s satisfaction and a stronger cohesion. On the other hand, an authoritarian behavior may involve higher productivity but ultimately the group will be subject to apathy and aggressiveness. And a laissez-faire leader will enjoy a high personal satisfaction and a good atmosphere within his group, but the later will lack of cohesion and the production might get affected. In addition, they also found out that in such organizations, when the leader is attempted, the whole group collapses. Here there is an important link between the leader and the group that is transferred by a sort of affectionate relationship. For his part, Hollander (1958) noted that the more a boss had a significant contribution to the group, the more people will trust him and the more he can act as he wants. This is what Le Bon (1896) called “the prestige.” It is the domination exercised by an individual on a group whose members are fascinated by him. Freud (1920) adds that the individual in the group loses his own will and everything is predisposed to have him following the leader. This process is known as the “hypnotization”. The man finds his satisfaction in an ideal of himself embodied by the leader who is taken as model. However, for the same author, such a link is not unilateral. As the leader represents a group, he must be recognized as such and adhere to the group values. At any moment, “dominated” members may undermine the leader’s authority. The crowd he leads necessarily influences him. The leader is thus exposed to social control. For instance his privacy is integrated into his role. It can be exposed to group members. His integrity is also constantly assessed. His position as a group leader confers him some responsibilities, and he must always act in accordance to the expectations of all. In conclusion, the different behaviors of the leader will result in different effects on the group, and oppositely the needs of the group can influence the behavior of the leader.

Leadership refers to a process of managing and making one or more groups of other individuals evolving. The term also refers to the ability that an individual, the leader, has when he successfully implement this process. It is interesting to note that the leader differs from the manager from how his power is obtained. This topic points to the dichotomy of emerging leader and appointed manager. In the first definitions of the term, leadership included a concept of innate talent and charisma. Leadership is not only the ability to manage a group, but also and most importantly to persuade and to involve group members. In this definition of leadership, leaders are born, not made. However, we have seen that this definition of leadership seems now outdated, and we can see a turning point in how leadership is comprehended. Several recent studies highlight the fact that leadership is limited in time and defined by the context. Both of these may undergo varied changes. Other studies, all too recent, show that there are many different patterns to exercise leadership and these may have varied consequences on the relationship between the leader and his group. In definitive, there is no ultimate way to exercise leadership, and there is no ultimate profile of the leader. A leader must be adaptable to the group he leads and to the situation in which the group’s endeavor takes place. Thus, in this definition, leadership is not necessarily an innate quality, but a skill that can be acquired through over time, just as in any other field.




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2.  Bennis, W. and Nanus, B. 1985. Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. Harper & Row: New York.

3.  Blake, R. & Mouton, J. 1964. The Managerial Grid: The Key to Leadership Excellence. Gulf Publishing Co: Houston.

4.  Freud, S. 1920. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Translated from German by Strachey, J. 1951. Liveright Publishing Corporation: New York.

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6.  Homans, G. 1961. Social Behaviour: Its Elementary Forms. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London.

7.  Le Bon, G. 1896. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Translated from French. 2002. Dover Publications: UK.

8.  Lewin, K., Lippitt, R. and White, R. 1939. Patterns of Aggressive Behaviour in Experimentally Created “Social Climates”. Journal of Social Psychology, Issue 10. pp. 271-299.

9. Likert, R. 1967. The Human Organization: Its Management and Value. McGraw-Hill: New York.

10.  Moorhead, G. and Griffin, R. 1998. Organizational Behavior: Managing People and Organizations. 5th Edition. Houghton Mifflin: Boston.

11.  Northouse, G. 2007. Leadership Theory and Practice. 3rd Edition. Sage Publications: London.

12.  Sherif, M. 1966. In Common Predicament: Social Psychology of Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston.

13.  Smith, J. & Foti, R. 1998. A Pattern Approach to the Study of Leader Emergence. The Leadership Quarterly. Volume 9, Issue 2. pp. 147-160.

14.  Stanford, 2005. Effective Leaders Made, Not Born, Colin Powell says. Stanford Report. 30 November 2005. Available at http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/november30/powell-113005.html [Accessed 13 April 2010]

15.  Stogdill, R. & Coons, A. 1957. Leader Behavior: Its Description and Measurement. Ohio State University, Bureau of Business Research: Columbus.

16.  Weber, M. 1922. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Translated from German by Roth, G. and Wittich, C. 1978. University of California Press: Berkeley.

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