Social Business, Psychology of Leadership, Leadership by Asa AaronsAsk a group of people if leadership flows from nature or nurture -- and you'll get a lot of answers. Just last week, we published a story that asked the question Are Great Leaders Made or Born? 

Author Tom Lowery suggested it's a bit of both, "with an emphasis on nurture." But to really answer the question, don't we have to define leadership?

Leadership Psychology

Think of your favorite 19th century industrialist … Jay Gould. Henry Clay Frick. John D. Rockefeller. Cornelius Vanderbilt. J. P. Morgan. No matter what ambitious capitalist you name, odds are he engaged in exploitative practices to amass wealth.

As Christopher Levenick, editor-in-chief of Philanthropy, noted, Titans of industry were essentially thieves -- "robber barons."

Were they unethical? Immoral? Perhaps. They flourished during a time when it was standard operating procedure to influence government officials, pay low wages, take every step possible to squash competition, even defraud investors.

And yet they created real and enduring wealth, which ultimately benefitted everyone. They created everything from new products and more efficient ways of doing business, to jobs and that nebulous thing called "opportunity."

They were risk takers. Innovators. Leaders.

Do you think any one of them ever took a leadership development course? Most of them never even graduated from college.

A New Era

So have times changed? That's what Deloitte suggested in a report it prepared on Nature or Nurture? a few years ago.

The report asked whether leadership development is a waste of time and money -- or a good way for organizations to strengthen their benches. Authors Neil Neveras, a senior manager at Deloitte Consulting and Rens Van Loon, director, Deloitte Netherlands, concluded that leadership development is not only a good strategy, but an essential one. As they explained: 

When people tell us they don’t think an investment in leadership development is worth it, we understand. Many of them are successful people who reached their position without so much as a single training course. Some are working in organizations that have succeeded without having any formal development program in place, ever. And most have been around the block long enough to know a real leader when they see one. We get that. But the world has changed. The old ways of doing things won’t guarantee you’ll have the leaders you need, when you need them."

Do you agree? Before you answer, let's consider a very basic question. What are the traits of excellent leaders -- ones that are as creative, innovative and successful as the Robber Barons of yesterday (though, we hope, more ethically grounded)? If you ask me, they have:

  • Vision and attention to detail -- It’s important to maintain focus and control on the direction the company is headed
  • Courage -- Innovative leaders are comfortable with the uncertainty of market, technology and organizational issues
  • High acceptance of risk -- Innovation always involves calculated risks and tolerance failure
  • Excellent communication skills -- It’s important to be able to persuade and inspire other people, especially those who fear change
  • Passion for progress -- Their drive to succeed is typically ranked one of their most important attributes
  • Adaptability -- Lessons from one arena can often be used to drive innovation in another

Defining Leadership

What have I missed? More importantly, how do you perceive these traits? Are you born with them or do they result from the right leadership development training, skills that flow from attendance at a seminar or workshop or by obtaining a specialized advanced degree?

I'm no psychologist. But I've been in the workforce long enough to know there's a difference between having skills and having the intuitive sense to use them appropriately, consistently and fairly. I think of leadership as that magic "it" -- the undefined thing that separates someone with technical skills and abilities from someone who inspires, excites and encourages people to follow -- enthusiastically and passionately.

Maybe some people can learn to become leaders. But my guess is more leaders are just born that way.

Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Title image by Asa Aarons/All Rights Reserved