Are leaders born or made?

  • Published
  • By Francisco Velazquez-Salazar
  • 460th Logistics Readiness Squadron
Are leaders born or made?  This topic is often debated in leadership classes.  Perhaps you could read about famous leaders to understand what made them great.  Books on Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy should help answer this question, right? 

Not necessarily. 

Each of us, at some point in our military careers, has worked with that unique individual who stood above the rest.  For me, it was Chief Master Sgt. Terry Prudehomme, whom I consider to be a great leader.  Let us analyze leadership from two perspectives- personal and academic- to determine if a leader is born or made.

Prudehomme was my supervisor from 1994 to 1997 while I was stationed at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming. Prudehomme was a great leader and everyone respected him because he was one of those unique individuals that didn't use coercive power to change behavior.  He had legitimate power, reward power, expert power, and most of all, referent power with great charisma and loyalty to the squadron and troops.  His pleasant demeanor, father-like personality, military status, technical expertise, and dress and appearance really stood out.  His leadership style seemed natural and unrehearsed, which is what I believe made him so effective.  Aside from being a technical expert, his other qualities were not taught in the classroom, they came naturally and everything about him was real.  Despite being four grades below him with less than half of his military experience, he was not intimidating.  Everyone else felt the same; he was genuinely a great person.  As I look back on my days at F.E. Warren AFB, Prudehomme equally mastered leadership and management skills, which led the 90th Services Squadron to consistently earn top level awards thanks to highly-motivated and productive services staff under his supervision.  Air Force leadership recognized his talents and promoted him to AFSPC services manager. 
Effective leaders genuinely care for people.  They possess subtle qualities not easily seen, but are very powerful.  Many personal traits are not taught in the classroom. Rather they are characteristics that distinguish an individual: integrity, honesty, self-confidence, enthusiasm, courage, humility and appearance.  Effective leaders also have great energy, passion and charisma.  Granted, many of these qualities attributed to life experiences that mold a person's character may be viewed as learned attributes.  However, a person's demeanor and physiological make-up are not learned attributes. You're either born with it or you're not.   

Trait and behavior are two characteristics that best describe leadership.  They go hand-in-hand and the situation dictates which type of leadership style to use.  Traits are tendencies to feel, think and act in certain ways.  Behavior is what a person actually does through personal, day-to-day decisions to help employees, groups, and organizations achieve their goals. The biggest difference between trait and behavior approaches is that behavioral leadership can be taught, and traits are personal qualities inherent to an individual.  I prefer trait characteristics because they're unique to each individual and it's not a given that every person possesses these qualities.  Integrity, honesty, loyalty, self-confidence and drive are some trait characteristics not replaceable and held in high-esteem by onlookers.

Leadership is also a science, because its dimensions, concepts and theories provide students the understanding necessary for meeting individuals' needs, as well as achieving organizational goals.  Knowing leadership from an academic standpoint helps people analyze situations from various perspectives and apply the correct leadership style appropriately.  Many leadership styles exist and each is best suited for a given situation.  Some of these models include but are not limited to, the Path-Goal Theory, the Contingency Approach and the Vroom-Jago Contingency Model. 

The more we know and apply these leadership theories, the more effective we become as leaders.  By exploring leadership in both business and society, students gain an understanding on the importance of leadership to an organization's success as well as the difficulties and challenges involved in being a leader.

Transformation Leadership is one style I subscribe to.  Transformational leaders have integrity and high emotional intelligence. They motivate people with a shared vision of the future and communicate well. They're also self-aware, authentic, empathetic and humble.  This approach inspires team members because leaders expect the best from everyone and hold themselves accountable.  Leaders set clear goals and have good conflict-resolution skills which lead to high productivity and engagement. 

First and foremost, Prudehomme liked people (a prerequisite for being a good leader). He also possessed personal characteristics and technical skills to make him an effective leader.  So getting back to the original question: are leaders born or made?  My answer is both.  To be an effective leader, the person must possess certain personal qualities and know how to apply different leadership techniques in every situation for the betterment of the people and the mission. 

Leadership is an art, a science, and most importantly, a skill that takes many years to master. The starting point is a person's character, it builds from there.