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Born With It or Not, Leadership Requires Learning

Do successful leaders need raw talent or rigorous training? Or both?

Leadership spans human endeavors from business to culture, religion to war, politics to technology, sports to academia. It includes all manner of exercise — authoritative, influential, moral, intellectual, energetic, and hands-on or passive, laid-back, strong, and weak. It is manifest at all levels in all kinds of organizations and institutions. It is both historical and contemporary, unchanging and dynamic. We recognize it when we see it. We usually applaud when someone exercises it, and we generally reward those who possess it. It is the subject of countless discussions, just like this one.

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Yet, perhaps because it is all of these things, there is no consensus about whether leaders are born or made, whether the capacity comes naturally or is learned. For both of us, this is a very important question because one of us is in the business of teaching leaders and the other is in the business of finding them.

We think the answer lies somewhere between the extremes of nature and knowledge. Consider Michael Jordan, someone who embodies the combination of those two extremes. He is one of the world’s most extraordinary physical talents. Despite his gifts, however, he was unable to lead his basketball team to its first NBA title until he learned to help recruit, work with, and meld other key players into a winning team. Over the course of six years, Jordan learned how to develop that group to its highest achievement — a league championship in 1990.

Beyond this simple example, there are two other lessons to learn: It takes teamwork to win, just as it does in most other endeavors, and part of being a leader is raising team members to levels they would not have been able to achieve on their own. It is significant that Jordan’s teammates have not truly excelled after they or Jordan left the Chicago Bulls.

The capacity to learn and apply life’s lessons, whether acquired through an academic process or real-world experience, is key to becoming and remaining a successful leader. There are many examples of leaders who have either failed to learn or failed to apply what they have learned and who have thus failed in their leadership. The U.S. auto industry of the 1970s and ’80s, for example, ignored lessons about service, quality, and performance, which it should have learned from its foreign competitors. Chrysler, in particular, had to be bailed out by the federal government, only to be sold two decades later to a foreign competitor. At the same time, and notwithstanding its current problems, Motorola successfully transformed itself from a car-radio company to a world leader in wireless communications and semiconductors under visionary and motivated leadership.

In today’s dynamic world, where things are changing at Internet speed, those who can internalize the lessons around them, who can envision the importance of those insights on their enterprise, and who can motivate and influence others to act on those insights will have a better chance of success.

Kevin Connelly (kconnelly@spencerstuart.com) has served as a member of the board of directors of several corporations and a community bank. He is a member of the worldwide board of Spencer Stuart Management Consultants NV. Ellen Rudnick (rudnick@gsb.uchicago.edu) serves as executive director and clinical professor of the Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

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