Is a Leader Born or Made?


What is a leader?

Firstly let me clarify what is meant by a leader. Author Ralph Nader’s quoted definition of a leader is : “A leader has the vision and conviction that a dream can be achieved. He inspires the power and energy to get it done”. Leadership practice is about communicating with people in a manner that helps them understand a common goal and motivates them to achieve it. The individual who formulates and delivers the communication is, therefore, known as a leader.

Literature Review

The article by Livingston (2003) found that performance and career progress is determined by the manager’s expectations of their subordinate, and the way they treat them. However the expectations of the manager must be realistic and achievable and also high expectations are based on self perception.

  • What managers expect of subordinates and the way they treat them largely determine their performance and career progress.
  • Those expectations must be realistic and achievable.
  • High expectations of superior managers are based primarily on what they think about themselves.

The study provides the reader with actionable insights backed up by scientific experiments that allow the leadership practitioner to understand that the way they set expectations with their team can influence their performance. Particularly interesting is the way a manager communicates or does not communicate can have a positive or negative impact with their team. Livingston states “Indifferent and noncommittal treatment, more often than not, is the kind of treatment that communicates low expectations and leads to poor performance” (p100). Put simply this article argues that if a leader is self-confident, has a belief in their subordinates and can communicate high expectations whilst holding themselves to the same standard then an opportunity for high performance exists.

The study by Robert J. Allio in the Strategy & Leadership article “Leadership – the five big ideas” suggests that the majority of leadership books are based on five main principles :

  • Good learners have good character
  • There’s no best way to lead
  • Leaders must collaborate
  • Adaptability makes longevity possible
  • Leaders are self made

The main points of this article are :

There are five general debate themes to the majority of published leadership books and a practitioner must use their own judgement to decide their own personal leadership style.

In addition to the five common themes there are four additional areas (Selection, Training, Followership & Metrics) that are important elements for quantifying leadership success.

Leadership can be taught and can also improve with practice.

The structure of the article makes it accessible to the reader on multiple levels. “The five big ideas” can be read as a review and the conclusion drawn from a basic skim read. These five big ideas can also be used as an index to discover the article’s content in depth based on an individual’s personal interest. It is only when the article is read as a whole that its critical examination of leadership books and principals come to the fore. Each section contains a variety of sources that summarize and supports each theme and by understanding each section the reader gets a sense of each of the sources if only at a very high level. In addition to the main themes, there are other themes that are important to leadership quality. For example in the selection section (p9) the author suggests that organizations have an opportunity to select and retain better leaders and what is required to enable that is “a simple diagnostic that increases the probability that our candidates for leadership will succeed”. For the purpose of this critical review, I wish to draw attention to the statement made by the author that “Leadership can be taught” and “leadership can develop with practice”. These statements were made to support the argument that leaders are self-made.

The third article is from the Academy of Management Executive “Leadership: do traits matter?” written by Shelley A. Kirkpatrick and Edwin A. Locke from the University of Maryland. The main themes in this article are :

  • Personality traits such as Drive, Achievement, Ambition and tenacity are important in leadership quality.
  • Other traits such as Charisma, creativity and flexibility are also important but less evident in their importance to Leadership.
  • The core role of a leader is to create and communicate a compelling vision.

The role of a leader in an organization is a demanding one. This article argues that an individual who has the requisite characteristics of a leader such as “Drive, desire to lead, self-confidence, honesty (and integrity), cognitive ability, and business experience – have a considerable advantage over those who lack these traits” (p11). Potential leaders can be selected from within an organisation who possess some of these characteristics and assessment center exercises can be used to identify those candidates. Once the candidates have been identified, training and work experience can be applied to develop these candidates building their confidence in “mastering the various skills that leadership requires as well as the technical and strategic challenges of the industry. Such confidence parallels the individuals growth in knowledge” (p11).

The articles in the context of personal experience

Livingston’s “Pygmalion in Management” article challenged me to consider the moments when I am busy formulating tactical plans or working on a subject matter in close proximity to my subordinates. What are my facial expressions? Do I appear angry, frustrated or worried? What does my non verbal communication convey? Have I engaged with my team each morning with a cheery hello. It is important to start to consider these things to ensure that I am able to motivate my employees through positive self control and body language. I should keep my frustrations private and not express them publicly when considering other departments actions. A regular statement such as “Uh! The IT dept did it AGAIN!” should not be shared publicly as it not only expresses negativity but also sets an expectation that my subordinates should express similar views and therefore a self fulfilling prophecy could affect an IT project of which I am a stakeholder.

Robert J. Allio’s “Leadership – the five big ideas” also challenges me to continue to learn and strive for opportunities to grow in my organisation because he argues that “leadership theory and principles can be taught, but leadership behavior must be learned. Individuals evolve into leaders as they experiment with alternative approaches to new challenges and slowly integrate the successful approaches into a personal leadership style and strategy” (P9). I have been leading teams of people for over 17 years at this stage in my career, but the studies from the Roehampton MBA have shown me that there is so much more to know and apply to improve my leadership quality.

Shelley A. Kirkpatrick and Edwin A. Locke’s “Leadership: do traits matter?” study was an enjoyable read, the complete list of leadership adjectives were eye candy to my own desire to get assurance that I possessed “the right stuff” to be a leader of quality. Admittedly I used the article as my own personal checklist but by doing so I found it to be an interesting tool for self reflection. Having been a leader within my organisation for many years I have developed many of the skills covered in this article such as knowledge of the business. I found this statement somewhat sobering “Leaders are achievement-oriented, ambitious, energetic, tenacious, and proactive. These same qualities, however, may result in a manager who tries to accomplish everything alone, thereby failing to develop subordinate commitment and responsibility. Effective leaders must but also be full of drive and ambition, they must want to lead others.” (p5). At times, my strong desire to control outcomes or please others leads me to take on a task that should have been delegated. This statement serves as a reminder that being a leader is not about doing the job yourself.


By understanding what a leader is and reading through these articles there are main themes that are common to all of the articles. Whilst leaders with certain traits have an advantage over others without as expressed by Shelley A. Kirkpatrick and Edwin A. Locke’s “Leadership: do traits matter?” article. Leaders are self made as argued by Robert J. Allio in the Strategy & Leadership article “Leadership – the five big ideas”. It is only through learning alternative leadership methods and adopting them into their personal leadership style that a manager’s leadership quality increases. With increased skill and knowledge comes greater self-confidence. With greater self-confidence comes the ability to model one’s performance, set higher personal standards and “stimulate subordinates to high levels of performance” as stated by J. Sterling Livingston’s “Pygmalion in Management” (p102). Based on these themes I would argue that a leader is both born and made. The characteristics born and nurtured to an individual present them with the opportunity, but it is only through study, self-reflection, practice, experience and adaptation that a leader evolves.


Allio, R.J. (2009),’Leadership–the five big ideas’, Strategy & Leadership, 37 (2), pp. 4-12.

Kirkpatick, S.A. and Locke, E.A. (1991),’Leadership: do traits matter?’. The executive, 5 (2), pp. 48-60.

Livingston, J.S. (2003).’Pygmalion in management’. Harvard business review, 81 (1), pp. 97-106.

Nader, R. (2014). Ralph Nader Quotes, [online] Available from:

(Accessed: 17 Feb 2014).


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