Leaders Are Not Born, They Are Created

“A leader is one who can get men to do things they may not want to do, but must be done. A great leader is one who can get ordinary men to do the things they thought were impossible.”   Ernest Emerson

Leaders Are Not Born, They Are Created

There are some who believe that leaders are born, that somehow the qualities of leadership are genetically inherited and passed down from father to son thereby begetting the “natural born leader.”  If that were the case then it could be generally assumed that you could only become a good leader if your father or mother were a good leader before you, and the genetic roll of the dice resulted in the right mix.

In reality, that is not the case, although it is easy to make the assumption due to the historical record. For example, many of our own country’s great leaders were the sons of fathers who were noted leaders before them or were from families who had a legacy of leaders before them. Conversely, you might look at the instances of many kings in European history who “never measured up” to the legacies of their fathers before them and turned out to be weak, incompetent and incapable of discharging their kingly duties in the best interest of their country.

A close friend, decorated former Navy SEAL Officer and Annapolis graduate Larry Yatch, and I were talking about defining leadership qualities, the process of identifyng potential leaders and quantifying a process to educate, and create leaders from potential candidates.

Actually, we were having a drink and it all started when I said  that out of dozens of applicants, I could not find one qualified to be a night shift supervisor. I could not believe that we had screened so many candidates and rejected all of them.  Larry on the other hand, was very pleased with the individual that he had just hired to be the operations manager at his business.

He had screened just one person and had hired him without reservation. The  guy Larry hired was also a former Navy SEAL. Larry told me,” Ernie, I knew what I was getting: a highly motivated, intelligent individual capable of both giving orders and taking orders, confident under pressure who would complete any task or project without ever having to be told twice.”

As our conversation continued, he asked me if I believed that leaders were born or if it was something that was learned. Without thinking, I replied,

general-george-s-patton-402041_1280“No, I believe that leaders are created from birth, but not before. I think that the qualities of leadership are developed and shaped by the environment from early childhood through adolescence onward, essentially by being imbued with the influence of parents and the example they set. Or it could also be through the influence of a brother, an uncle, a teacher or perhaps the example set by an athletic coach. In fact, I believe that coaches are possibly the strongest example of leaders that most young people ever experience. As a result, they have had a lasting influence upon thousands of young men and women. It’s one of the reasons I am such a strong advocate of competitive athletics for all children.”

Larry listened and then replied. “So if you think that it is a learned set of skills, then it should be able to be taught, right?”

“That would be correct,” I answered.

“Hell yes, it can be taught. The problem is that, outside of the military, there are very few civilian venues where those skills are taught and practiced. There are virtually no early age leadership learning programs or opportunities, the area precisely where leadership training should actually begin.” He then asked me, “Do you think that anyone can be taught those skills or do you believe that there are only some that are teachable, fertile ground and that there are some who will never  become leaders no matter what, being unfertile ground.

I said, “It has been my experience that there are some that will gain the skills of leadership and some that will not. I  believe that leaders must have early exposure to those traits, (leadership examples) and additionally, some individuals will actively seek the role of leadership, some will retreat from it, and some will simply have no interest in it just as I may like history and you may like chemistry, one to the exclusion of the other.”

As we talked further, several points came up. In the military, generally leaders are drawn to their position by a willful pursuit of it. For example,  if an individual decides that he wants to become a member of an Special Forces unit, a Navy SEAL or a Marine, etc., he must want to do so. In fact, he must really want to do so. He will put up and even welcome the hardship, the stress and the grueling ordeals he will need to face in order to do so. You could never prevail in an effort to succeed in any of those choices if you did not want, above all, to be one of those special few.

And so it is with the role of leadership as it is with any endeavor that separates one from the rest of the pack.

In further discussion we broke down some of the basic traits that are necessary for an individual to become a leader. These essential traits are made up of the following attributes and circumstances:

  1. Leadership Role Models. These must be present in childhood. These could be parents, relatives, teachers, coaches, mentors or inspirational heroes drawn from literature or history. Thus the “fertile ground” to aspire to a better status or alpha position among peers, teammates, club members or groups is established.
  1. An Outgoing Personality. Wallflowers, introverts, and shy people are not leaders and if they are forced or thrust into such a position often lock up, or fail to perform. A strong personality in conjunction with healthy, genuine, self esteem and an ego, powerful but in check, are all needed and necessary to make difficult decisions in a time of need.  It is interesting to note that intoversion and extroversion are learned behaviors as well.
  1. Want of Responsibility. This includes not only wanting to take charge, but also the willingness to answer for your decisions and actions as a leader, the shouldering of responsibility.
  1. Training. Training can be acquired through a variety of venues. It is not limited  to the formal environment of institutional leadership instruction such as the military, private leadership programs or scholastic instruction such as management training programs.  Leadership can also be self taught, without structured programs- on the job training, you might say. But most often, even in self taught instances, leadership is learned in tandem as an adjunct to the formal or informal training an individual is being exposed to. Some leaders without formal training may have had such strong role models and or parental influence that they have without realizing it trained themselves by merely following the good examples that were set for them. This case could then create to an outside observer the false conclusion of the natural born leader phenomenon. Most leaders though are actually a product of all of these factors combined.
  1. Practice. In order to develop leadership skills, the role of leadership must be practiced to gain the experience of leadership. As with any other learned skill, it must be practiced to be mastered. The military provides the clearest example of leadership practice in action. The rotation of Platoon leader assignments and the continual tasking of recruits with various responsibilities and leadership duties gives these recruits the opportunity to practice leadership skills. It also gives the Command a means of sorting out the leaders from the followers, as a result of their performance evaluations.

Outside of the military the practice of leadership may also be gained through participation in sports, clubs, volunteer organizations and through various business endeavors. In other words, leadership practice may be exercised in any situation where a potential leader is tasked with that role,  ie., team captain, team leader, event coordinators, leadmen or supervisor, to name a few.

  1. Opportunity. Without the opportunity to lead, a leader may never be discovered. Working alone or in environments where one is on his own is usually not the place where leadership is required. In order to be a leader you must be in a situation where there are others to lead. Solo efforts to complete a task may require many varied and essential skills, but leadership is usually not one of them.  When there are two people and one task, there is an opportunity to flex your leadership muscle.

president-67550_1920One of the consequences of being a leader is acceptance of the premise that one person is better suited, more experienced, more qualified, better educated or in possession of the combination of traits and skills that sets him above the rest. He is thereby justified in the role of leadership. If someone is chosen, appointed, elected or commissioned to a position of leadership, then he must also have the authority to assure that his orders or decisions are executed, carried out and discharged.

In addition to that vested authority to command, there are personal qualities that the leader must also possess in order to inspire those under him to willfully carry out his commands and orders.

Timidity, second guessing, indecision, waffling and cowardice are not considered desired traits for a good leader. Authority, dignity, decisiveness, honesty, integrity and courage are considered heavily among the character traits necessary for one to be a good leader.

Whether you are someone looking for leaders or charged with creating tomorrow’s leaders, being aware of, codifying and understanding the attributes that are the ingredients for creating a leader will  help you build a successful leadership training program producing solid results.

As our evening turned into late night and the whisky bottle ran dry, Larry looked at me and said,

” We should write a book.”

“We should teach a class,” I added. Then he said,

” Like we’ve both got time for that.” We both laughed.


Copyright Ernest Emerson 2016

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