Insights Blog

Leaders are Born, Not Made . . . and Other Popular Myths

Leadership in today’s marketplaces is perhaps more challenging than it has ever been. Today’s executives manage a complex mix of accountabilities from operations to finance to personnel – as well as a myriad of critical relationships that can include regulators, labor unions and contractors, vendors and alliance partners.

The critical challenge for corporate leaders across industries is to generate not just managers and executives, but individuals capable of the kind of leadership required. Gone are the days when meeting targets and objectives was enough for a manager to claim at the end of the day. Managers must now be leaders as well, capable of attracting the best and the brightest, and motivating people to perform at the highest levels possible, even when against the odds.

So what can an organization do? A good first step: Challenge the conventional wisdom. Dispel certain common myths, and unearth some important realities about leaders who succeed.

MYTH #1: Leaders are born, not made.
Leaders are made – by the commitments they make

A common view is that leaders possess a special set of qualities which are intrinsically part of their personality. Time and again, studies and books list sets of traits that you will find in successful leaders. We are all familiar with the lists: visionary, energetic, dynamic, fair, inspiring, courageous, charismatic, and so on.

While these descriptions certainly capture something about leadership, they don’t get to the heart of it. It’s not that you wouldn’t use many of these words to describe strong leaders. The point is: these words describe what you see when someone is leading effectively. They are descriptions offered by observers – the people in the stands who are watching the game on the field.  We suggest debunking the myth of born leaders: These qualities and behaviors are part of the result – not the genesis – of good leadership.

The genesis of leadership is one’s commitment to a possibility yet to be realized. It is often triggered by someone who looks out into their organization and is not satisfied with what they see – so they take on a big commitment. They decide to intervene with what is predictable, and they commit to producing results which are possible, yet not at all predictable. Leaders are the people who commit to changing the future in this way, and to making something happen that otherwise wouldn’t without them. That is the value of a leader.

Consider the example of a civil engineer who spent the first decade of his career very focused on operational responsibilities, then became a manager. Soon after that, when several partners left the firm, he found himself in the managing director role of a company with an unclear direction. His hands were full as he endeavored to manage the full scope of the firm’s operations, people, and strategic direction. And by his own admission, “many mistakes were made.”

After giving some serious consideration to his performance as a leader – and further examining his skills and tendencies after enrolling himself in a leadership development program – he came to a significant realization about his leadership approach. As this now-CEO would write later in an industry journal: “I had to move from my natural style of being the captain of the team, leading by example and making lots of decisions, to being the coach who was able to step back and create the space for others to play in.”

This challenge served as a turning point. He committed to relinquishing operational reigns to his managers, as well as something much bigger: dramatically boosting the value of the firm with an aggressive acquisition strategy. This set the course for unprecedented growth and success for his firm, from being valued at $16 million to being valued at $170 million just two years later – a figure that would more than double in another year’s time.

When people generate this kind of compelling challenge for themselves and rise to the occasion, their leadership flows from their commitment to meeting that challenge and achieving what they see is possible for the future. They gain new power and confidence through this process, and they lead with a sense of purpose that rallies the people around them.

Their effective leadership is much more the product of circumstances – and how they commit to dealing with those circumstances – than it is about any characteristics they may have naturally possessed. In fact, sometimes the key to their success involves shedding certain natural tendencies – and in so doing, achieving a breakthrough in leadership success. Shy people become bold, quiet people begin to speak, and an absence of intensity gives way to passion for the future they are working to achieve.

MYTH #2: Leaders know what to do
REALITY: Leaders step up even when they don’t know what to do

Sometimes it may seem that great leaders know something the rest of us don’t – something about the future and how to get where they want to go. Actually, what they don’t know factors in more significantly than what they do know. Effective leaders commit to something before they know how to make it happen. After all, achieving any kind of breakthrough involves not only challenging what is known, but stepping beyond it. This is the very nature of achieving results that are unprecedented and delivering performances that go beyond what is predictable.

But reaching beyond what is known and what has been done before – in and of itself – will not take a leader and his or her organization to the future they envision. There’s the vision, and there’s also the reality of the company’s current state of affairs. Good leaders are clear and conversant about both, and they know how to keep a foot in both worlds. Their reach for new levels of performance is informed by past and current realities – but not limited by them.

When the CEO of an energy industry supplier faced a daunting crossroads for his business in the mid-1990s, he committed himself to an almost unthinkable turnaround – and at the same time, immersed himself in the difficult reality.  The company’s operating costs were running too high, production was taking too long and the company’s market share was slipping. Incremental change would not be enough to revive the business and take it to new all-around levels of performance. He set forth an objective well beyond the predictable: of doubling the company in every way—size, productivity, revenues and profits—within four years.

At the same time, the CEO talked with employees about the reality of their situation. He spoke about not having all of the answers – but having confidence in their managers and teams, and their abilities to come up with ways to innovate and reach their new goals. He didn’t prescribe how they would achieve what at first seemed impossible, but he made it clear that (a) he understood the bleak realities, and (b) he knew they could succeed, and meet the huge commitment before them.

And they did. By all accounts, his approach made all the difference. As he described it: “They had to come to believe that they weren’t operating in some sort of bubble—that we were genuinely committed to their efforts, and leadership was on record with that commitment.”

When leaders can take this kind of stance – stay grounded in reality while also standing for a possibility – they open the door for unforeseen possibilities, and for new ways of thinking and working. And this goes a long way toward getting others on board with them. As the people around them realize that their own thinking could be the very thing that limits their horizons, the more their ingenuity is unleashed. And because they know their efforts are grounded in reality, they aren’t pursuing a “dream,” they are pursuing a future that is very real to them, which makes it achievable after all.

MYTH #3: Great Leaders are Charismatic “People People.”
Reality: Great leaders listen to people, and it comes through in how they talk.

A common view of leaders is that they possess some mystical quality of personal magnetism and charm – that their charisma and the way they talk to people somehow explain their success as a leader. But charisma is not at the core of effective leadership, and no amount of smooth-talking will save the day for any company. The magnetism of strong leaders is real, but it’s much more about how they listen than how they talk, or some kind of innate appeal. Their attention is on the people with whom they are communicating and how they are seeing the world. When they talk with people, they’re not already focused on what they’re going to say next. When people raise objections with them, they’re not poised to immediately respond or defend.

They also speak in a way that is informed by what they hear – something well-illustrated in this next example. When the newly appointed CEO in the transportation industry began his job, he decided that he would spend the first 30 days not just listening to people, but to truly listening with the utmost attention – to their concerns, both spoken and unspoken, to their daily frustrations and larger disappointments, to their aspirations for themselves and the company.

He visited various parts of the company and asked employees to tell him what they wanted him to know about the business, or what questions or concerns they had. He told them he wouldn’t try to answer their questions because he didn’t know enough yet, but he wanted to know what they were and what was on their minds.

In the next phase of his effort, the CEO again went around to different parts of the company – and this time, he talked. He told them what direction he wanted to take the company, based on what he had learned. He set new performance targets that more than doubled the company’s past performance.

When he talked, the people listening could tell that he understood the issues and challenges they were dealing with, and that he had heard enough to appreciate the reality of their day-to-day work. This gave him enormous credibility when he began speaking about what needed to change, and the future as he saw it. The employees could move beyond disbelief and skepticism and listen, in large part because they had been listened to.

His speaking matched what was going on in the minds of his audience. It also reflected something else good leaders do – a conscious choice he had made about who he considered to be his audience. Rather than view them as resistant skeptics he had to convince of something, he chose to view them as his partners in creating a new future for the organization. This provided a completely different environment for him to speak, and it illustrates an important point: an effective exchange doesn’t hinge on the audience. It hinges on the leader, how he or she listens, and how that listening informs what they say.

MYTH #4: Leaders are scarce
REALITY: Leaders are everywhere

Given the misperceptions that leadership is a function of a special personal qualities, knowledge, and/or charisma, it is only logical that leaders are commonly seen as scarce. Organizations spend a lot of time, energy and money looking for them, in fact. But potential leaders aren’t scarce; they are abundant. They are new employees and long-time hard workers and soon-to-be retirees, waiting in the wings for their moment to make a difference – whether they realize it or not.

The myths about leadership leave organizations with a loophole. They keep companies busy playing the “needle-in-a-haystack” game, searching for the “right people” with the “right characteristics.” Not only is this an unfortunate use of resources, it undercuts the possibility of developing people to be effective leaders – which is a far more realistic possibility than that of finding people innately endowed with leadership capabilities.

If leadership is scarce in your organization, do the myths get you off the hook? Perhaps it is time for a new approach.

Leaders are much more likely to emerge in an environment that fosters leadership. Rather than deciding at specified junctures that certain people be placed on a leadership track or not, companies would be well-served to create a culture where potential leaders throughout the organization can emerge and be developed. In this kind of culture, the focus isn’t on trying to help people develop qualities they don’t seem to possess; it’s about creating opportunities and challenges that compel people to step up and lead. In this kind of environment, people make big commitments to results that reach beyond what’s predictable; people know they don’t need all the answers to offer up an innovation or goal; people truly listen to each other and it shows in the way they speak.

In this kind of culture, leaders may sometimes seem magical or legendary – because they lead their teams to their greatest accomplishments. Leaders may seem to know something we don’t – but what sets them apart is the courage and commitment to pursue tremendous challenges, even when they don’t quite know how to do it. Leaders in this kind of company may indeed have powerful personal appeal – but it’s rooted in something very real: the power of truly listening, and talking in a way that reflects what people care about.

Companies around the world have discovered that they can empower leadership within every level of the organization. In this model, there is no shortage of leadership, and the question becomes, “What will unleash the untapped energy, commitment, and creativity in this company – and draw out its leaders?”

By shifting the perspective from scarcity to abundance, there is greater ownership, productivity, and growth. It’s a little like, “build it and they will come.” In a culture that encourages people to make big commitments and promises, then gives them the space, support and tools to get it done, leaders will step forward.

Ask someone who’s been a part of a company that made its way from dark days to unthinkable success, or taken their industry by storm with a move that transformed their organization from a solid competitor to a market leader. It can seem like a miracle when all is said and done, but along the way, it’s about people committing on a daily basis to something far bigger and better than what they know. What compels them to commit is based in what is fundamentally important to them. When there is a match between what is fundamentally important to someone and the opportunity to make it a reality, people are unstoppable – and leadership emerges.

This is what can happen when the myths about leadership give way to the very promising reality: There are leaders all around us, and when they emerge to make something happen, they galvanize the people around them – and together, they change their future and their world.


A leader’s power and effectiveness emerges from making bold commitments, engaging others about what is possible, and creating challenges, while giving people permission to step forward and contribute.  Therefore, developing people’s capabilities in these areas is important to generating leadership.

How successful one is at generating effective leadership directly relates to the size of the challenge and results to which one is committed.  As such, a leadership development program must equip individuals to meet significant business challenges by helping them reach beyond themselves and their previous way of working and thinking, and help them commit to achieving something truly extraordinary, even when the pathway to delivery is unclear. A successful program also must create and maintain an environment that fosters leadership. This model produces an immediate payback for a company’s investment in its future leaders. Furthermore, once people have produced something extraordinary, they raise the bar for themselves.

However, this kind of leadership development must extend beyond the classroom in the form of taking on real-time business challenges and projects in which people can continuously integrate the new tools and principles they learn into key areas of their accountabilities and toward fulfillment of their company’s strategy.

Effective leadership, then, is neither a product of having the right characteristics nor about having the right experience and expertise—and is abundantly available within today’s organizations. In fact, it is possible to empower and develop effective leaders at all levels within an enterprise and satisfy the organizational imperative for effective leadership that is a match for a company’s most critical business challenges.