The 15 Billion Dollar Question: Are Leaders Really Made?

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By Martin Lanik, PhD, Pinsight® CEO

Every year, US organizations spend over $15 billion on leadership development (Bersin by Deloitte, 2014) in the hopes of making great leaders. So clearly, today’s organizations believe that leaders are made, not born. But how did we get here and what evidence do we have to support this well-funded belief that leadership can be developed?

Philosophers, businesspeople, and psychologists have been pondering the question of leadership for decades. Are leaders born or made? Can you train anyone to become a great leader? Enter, the nature vs. nurture debate that hounded leadership theories for decades. Let’s review how we got to our modern understand of what is leadership.

Early Thinking: Leadership Traits, Leadership Behaviors, and Appropriate Situations

Early theorists believed that great leaders are born and all great leaders hold a particular profile (Judge & Cable, 2004). “Tell me his traits and I will tell you if he will be a great leader,” was the early thinking. Researchers set out to find a portrait of effective leadership but they failed, and with this failure crumbled the trait-based approach. If great leaders were born, football coaches would simply be either good or bad regardless of the situation. We know that it’s not the case: Nick Saban coached two years in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins and finished with a 15 win and 17 loss record. He was fired for his poor performance, but then landed the head football coaching job at Alabama where he has amassed 18 losses and 110 wins. Surely the situation in Alabama must have had an impact on his performance!

If traits don’t distinguish between great and poor leaders, then perhaps actions will (e.g., Kerr, Schreisheim, Murphy, & Stogdill, 1974). Maybe great leadership is then defined by a set of behaviors – “great leaders DO great things,” was the next line of thinking. Indeed, researchers (Fiedler, 1967) found, for example, that leaders that actively showed concern for their employees were seen as supportive and liked by followers. On the other hand, leaders that imposed deadlines and enforced policies were thought to be effective at getting results.

The argument against these early behavior-based leadership theories was that certain behaviors (supportive vs. task) are effective only in certain situations. Imagine new employees learning about their job – they look to their leader to understand what tasks need to be completed. Supportive behaviors become more important once employees have mastered their tasks. In fact, task-oriented leadership may at that point be counterproductive and perceived as micromanagement.

Realizing the situational nature of leadership, theorists switched to thinking of leadership from a contingency perspective (Fiedler, 1967): in certain situations it pays to engage in supportive behaviors, whereas in other situations task-oriented behaviors prove to be most effective. However, this contingency approach created an unbelievably complex view of leadership, to a point that it become impractical (e.g., Path-Goal Theory; House, 1971). It was academic knowledge solely for the sake of knowledge rather than for business utility.

Modern Leadership Theory

Modern leadership scientists understand that there is some interplay between the person and her behaviors in determining great leadership. Although personality traits determine leaders’ preferred style, the way we think about leadership now is based off of tangible behaviors and actions, often called competencies. This notion is especially important for the field of leadership development because, unlike traits, leaders can develop competencies (Barling, Weber, & Kelloway, 1996). In particular, the field of leadership development has focused on transformational leaders. These are leaders that can motivate, inspire, teach, and manage their employees (Bass, 1985). Rigorous leadership development studies have shown promising results for the trainability of transformational leader behaviors (Kelloway & Barling, 2000). Take Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk, for example. Musk is able to inspire and create vision in his employees. This relationship isn’t just warm and fuzzy, and as a result, many Tesla’s employees work harder, faster, and longer hours. These employees love their jobs, have bought into the vision, and have no desire to leave the company.

Our knowledge on leadership has evolved and grown throughout the years. So, are leaders born or made? Undoubtedly the coming years will see new progressions, but we now know that leaders can be made – they can be developed. Great leaders possess characteristics that sets them apart from the rest, but these characteristics have behavioral manifestations, and those can be developed. The practical lesson for practitioners is clear: select trainees based on traits and focus on changing their behaviors. But what is the most effective way to changing behavior? Register for our upcoming webinar to find out.

Original Post: https://www.pinsight.com/blog/99/the-15-billion-dollar-question-are-leaders-really-made

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