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Leaders: born or made?

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Tony Richardson
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Let me start by saying that if I had the real answer to this question, I wouldn't look at Powerball winners with envy. I'd be buying countries with "straight cash, homie," as San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Randy Moss would say.

In its rawest form, the only thing required for one to be considered a leader is to have a follower. Simple enough.

So, the real question may be, "how do people get followers so that they can be leaders?" I think some of these answers can be found within the fields of psychology, interpersonal communication/social influence and common sense.

Essentially, a person seeking to become a leader is searching for ways to influence the way they are perceived by others. This is where credibility enters the picture: credibility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Person or object X isn't beautiful until someone perceives it to be. Credibility falls in the same category.

As more people agree that someone is credible, that person becomes what some would call an "opinion leader." We all know these types: they are in your office, your huddle, your church, on TV. If there are people, there's communication; and when there's communication, inevitably someone will emerge as an opinion leader.

The qualities, communication, or behaviors that lead us to view others as credible are varied. Maybe you were deceived. Maybe you know person X's reputation. Maybe you view person X as a competent, knowledgeable person on a particular subject. Maybe it evolved through conversation and communication upon meeting person X for the first time. Maybe you were or are being coerced. Maybe it is institutional.

No matter what pushed you over the brink, your attitude toward person X shifted to afford them credibility. When a few people feel the same way as you, well, you have the makings of what they call a "grassroots campaign" in politics.

Equipped with an attitude regarding a subject, something must push you over the edge to make you enact and adopt behaviors consistent with those attitudes. In other words, you must have a vested interest in the idea or behavior that is being advocated.

That, my friends, is the process. A person needs a follower to be considered a leader; otherwise, he's just a person, floating in the time-space continuum, kind of like the Higgs boson, for you science junkies.

All of this points to the idea that leaders are made. However, some would argue that leaders are born. You just can't teach charisma, character, confidence or competence, they say. I agree with those sentiments completely.

On the other hand, I would argue that those qualities are the result of interactions, experiences and transactions involving a person from birth until the time that you meet them. How a person chooses to respond, as well as how adept a person is at learning from the successes and mistakes of others, is critical to establishing one's leadership potential. To me, potential is a bunch of stuff you may or may not be using, so if you have a lot of it, and start to act on it - look out.

That's probably why I'm such a strong believer of the notion that "those with ability, share the responsibility."

That leaves religious leaders, prophets, kings, dictators and the military. Institutionally, whether you are born into or join one of these establishments, your leader has already been appointed. But, as we've seen throughout the course of history, all it takes is a movement (sometimes accompanied by weapons) to overthrow the ruler or institution, and you're back at square one: influence.

Yes, weapons are a form of influence. So is logic.

In other words, the fact that you were appointed as some sort of leader doesn't make you a leader. Proof: watch what happens the moment you lose the ability to influence others: "Off with his head!"

It is important to note that many of the aforementioned institutions survive for many years, even centuries, maintaining the status quo. By virtue of appointment, the group continues to follow the traditions of the institution, the "cause", if you will, regardless of who is actually in power.

One of the great minds of our lifetime, Simon Sinek, once said, "250,000 people didn't show up to Washington D.C. in 1963 to hear Martin Luther King speak. They showed up because they believed in his cause." This is why we were so successful in advocating and advancing equality despite his assassination a few years later. (Side note: I highly encourage you to read his book, "Start With Why." It will undoubtedly change the way you think about leadership and is now one of the top recommended leadership books in influential circles within the Air Force, and is now on the Chief of Staff of the Air Force's reading list).

So, are leaders born or made? My answer for those who consider themselves leaders: who died and made you king? No one? Well, I guess you're going to have to show me.