Born With It?

Born With It?

By Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser is a leadership consultant and former president of the National Speakers Association. From Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership (Wiley). Excerpted with permission of the publisher. ©2013

I recently had a rather animated conversation with an individual who, for some misguided reason, didn’t share my belief that leaders are not born but made. He tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to convince me that a leader either has it or doesn’t have it from birth—though I was never quite able to get this gentleman to specifically define what the it is.

I find his assertion to be very troubling—and here’s why. If this man is right (and I don’t for a moment believe he is), then there would be no reason to read any book that deals with topics of leadership, motivation, communication, problem-solving, team-building, or a litany of other subjects about people interacting with other people. Books—in addition to training sessions, coaching, mentoring, even personal experiences—would be of no benefit and a total waste of time for those unfortunate souls born without the leadership it. Why? Because those who have it simply don’t need leadership instruction, or anything else; they’ve already got it. And those who don’t will never be able to get it—try as they might—from any book or educational effort.

I’m more optimistic than that. I believe that every human birth brings with it the possibility of a new leader. A newborn child conceivably has the potential to learn and grow to become a famous leader in the mold of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Mother Theresa. Or maybe the child will simply grow into a more common, albeit less publicly visible leadership role in his or her company, community, or family. But every single one of them can learn to lead, as can the rest of us.

How can I be so sure? Well, for one thing, I’ve witnessed the birth and development of three leaders firsthand: my children, who are no longer children but contributing adults who serve admirably in various leadership roles at their jobs, in their communities, to their peer groups, and in their homes. They are leaders not because I say they are but, rather, because individuals have chosen, voluntarily and repeatedly, to follow them.

But they haven’t always been leaders. I was physically present, an excited eyewitness, when each of my children entered this world. I watched with anticipation and awe as each took his or her first breath. I remember them looking remarkably similar—little pink, naked bundles of leadership potential. But I can assure you that not one of them, during their moment of entry into this world, leapt to his or her feet in that delivery room shouting, “Follow me!”


From the Archives

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.