Leaders: Born or Made?
A recent article, “Homo administrans,” in the September 25th edition of the Economist puts a new wrinkle on the old controversy about whether leaders are born or made. The article suggests the answer might be “yes” and “no” depending on whether the leader is male or female.
The article contends that management science has been dominated by the Standard Social Science Model that assumes that differences among people are explained primarily by culture and socialization – i.e. leaders are made. Some biologists, however, maintain that genetics interact with the environment to exert considerable influence over work behavior, satisfaction, performance and the ability to lead.
In a study of identical twins, the researchers found that genes help explain extroversion (a personality trait conducive to leadership) only in women. The researchers concluded: “Businesswomen, it seems are born. But businessmen are made.” In a second study of just male twins, the researchers concluded: “Inborn leadership traits certainly do exist, but upbringing …matters too.”
Trust is listed as one of the most important requirements for effective leadership in just about every study of leadership, but is trust earned or determined by the amount of oxytocin in the leader’s blood stream? Do we send leaders lacking in trust back to school for training or down to the lab for a series of hormonal injections? Is risk-taking a function of testosterone levels? Did the leader pay too much for the acquisition because his testosterone level was too low? Are women better leaders than men? If so, is it because of their nurturing behavior or their chemical composition?
Biological studies of leadership and management raise these and numerous other fascinating questions about the selection, education, training and development of future leaders. They also raise a number of daunting ethical issues including: Genetic determinism; misuse of biological information; and genetic segregation.
The More Things Change, The More They Remain the Same
In their latest book, The Truth About Leadership (2010), James Kouzes and Barry Posner draw a remarkable conclusion about the impact of the 21st Century global economy on the fundamental requirements for effective leadership. Like the strange case of the dog that did not bark in the night, globalization is eerily silent while the authors investigate the requirements for effective leadership in today’s global economy.
The authors note that the context of leadership has changed dramatically with global competition, the accelerating pace of new technology, the multicultural workforce, concerns over terrorism, global warming, sustainability, and the displacement of the Baby Boomers with the Millennials in the workforce. But while the context of leadership has changed, the content has not changed much at all.
Kouzes and Posner postulate: “The fundamental behaviors, actions, and practices of leaders have remained essentially the same since we first began researching and writing about leadership over three decades ago. Much has changed, but there’s a whole lot more that’s stayed the same (p. XV). Later they state: “While context changes, while global and personal circumstances change, the fundamentals of leadership do not” (p. XIX).
One of their most surprising conclusions, and one that will surely be challenged, is that the requirements for effective leaderships of Millennials are no different from those for Baby Boomers and other generations: “When it comes to generating positive work attitudes, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a traditionalist, a Boomer, a Gen-Xer, or a Millennial. Good leadership is good leadership, regardless of age” (p. XVII).
The core of the book identifies and describes the ten fundamental truths about leadership that are unaffected by changes in context. The ten truths include:
You make a difference
Credibility is the foundation of leadership
Values drive commitment
Leaders focus on the future
You can’t do it alone
Challenge is the crucible of greatness
You lead by example
The best leaders are the best learners, and
Leadership is an affair of the heart
Perhaps, in some sense, these ten truths are so fundamental – so basic – that they do not change or change little with context. Perhaps, trust and credibility have been the foundation for effective leadership for 50,000 years and will be so for the next 50,000 years. But, while it is important to understand these fundamental truths, the risk is that some may conclude that it is therefore not necessary to change behavior to be an effective leader in the 21st century global economy.
As a practical matter, many important dimensions of effective leadership behavior and practice do vary significantly with context. Many aspects of leadership style, needed skills, behavior, and decision making that were expected and accepted by me over the past thirty years as a Baby-Boomer would be totally unacceptable and counterproductive to the Mellennials we teach leadership to here at LTU.
The authors note that you have to understand the perspectives of others to be an effective leader. You have to be sensitive to the needs of others; you have to understand the needs of your constituents. They state that leaders:. . . .“do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they look for ways to respond to the needs and interests of their constituents” (p. 138). That may be a fundamental truth, but the needs and interests of Millennials, for example, differ markedly from the needs and interest of Baby Boomers. Meeting these different needs is not simply a matter of serving butter pecan in the cafeteria instead of strawberry. Meeting the changing needs of a 21st Century, multi-cultural, knowledge-based work force requires dramatic changes in leadership beliefs, values, attitudes, styles, behavior and practice that will challenge the most astute of leaders, and be beyond the capabilities of many.