Leadership 101: The Making of a Leader


Last week’s post explored some of the questions around the definition of leadership. This week explores another question in the form  of one of leadership’s old chestnuts: are leaders born or made? Apparently a Google search for an answer to the question could fetch you millions of results!

If, with Thomas Carlyle, you subscribe to the Great Man theory of leaders, you’re likely going to say that they are born. They land on the planet, equipped with ‘the right stuff’ and lead simply by living.

It’s probably more than an academic question. After all, why bother with leader development programmes if leaders come pre-programmed to lead? Is there any value in leaders participating in such programmes? On the other hand, if leaders are made (at least in part), even those leaders who are born with an impressive array of leadership traits oozing from their pores will be able to benefit from training or coaching.

Warren Bennis described as ‘the most dangerous leadership myth’ the idea of a genetic factor in leadership. He claimed, instead, that ‘leaders are made rather than born. And the way we become leaders is by learning about leadership through life and job experiences.’

Not everyone agrees, with others suggesting that ‘it seems obvious that leaders are born different from their followers. It is not simply a matter of learning to lead’, or that leaders do need to have the ‘right stuff’ and that this is not equally present in everyone.

Interestingly, a couple of twin studies appeared to demonstrate that genetics do in fact account for part of the picture: around 1/3 of it in fact. Which means that, even if it’s only an inborn predisposition to leadership, leadership capacity is at least partly innate.

But what about the other 2/3 or so? The answer appears to have something to do with an emerging leader’s environment, including their experiences of life and leadership. In research literature these experiences include a range of things like hardships (and that term covers quite a range of events), ‘trigger moments’, bosses, religious experiences, unexpected opportunity, and so on.

One of the terms that has been used to describe some of the experiences that shape leaders is ‘crucible’. The term has been used particularly by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas in their book Geeks and Geezers (later renamed Leading for a Lifetime: How Defining Moments Shape Leaders of Today and Tomorrow). A series of interviews they carried out with a range of leaders from different eras led them to conclude that every leader appeared to have undergone some kind of intense transformative experience. The nature of these ‘crucibles’, as they called them, were varied. Some were harsh, others much less so.

They came to see crucibles as tipping points ‘where new identities are weighed, where values are strengthened or replaced, and where one’s judgment and other abilities are honed. It is an incubator for new insights and a new conception of oneself.’

Robert Thomas went on to write more on the subject, classifying crucibles as crucibles of new territory, often at the start of a career, reversals and what he called suspension. Importantly, each type of crucible tests the leader’s resilience and what Bennis and Thomas called ‘adaptive capacity’.

It’s an interesting image (one which I have given a fair bit of time to in research with Christian leaders), though it may not tell the whole story of the making of a leader. An understanding of a leadership journey has to take account of more gradual influences: there is an accumulated wisdom to be gleaned along the way and sometimes growth in leadership is incremental more than it is dramatic.

One of the voices that has had much to say about the making of a Christian leader is Robert Clinton who proposed that God develops a leader over a lifetime and that three essential elements interact in the process. By that he means ‘processing’, in other words anything that produces a leadership lesson, time, and the leader’s response to the processing: obviously two leaders can experience similar things yet respond differently and how they respond will affect the impact of the experience on their development.

Reggie McNeal has written a challenging and insightful book on the shaping of a leader’s heart (A Work of Heart). He proposes that the shaping of the leader’s heart is a joint enterprise between the leader and God and it takes place in six different ‘arenas’ that McNeal describes as

  • Culture
  • Call
  • Community
  • Communion
  • Conflict
  • The commonplace

For some time it has seemed to me that the life story of Moses, for all its uniqueness within the Bible’s greater storyline, might serve as a paradigm to help leaders explore their leadership journeys.

His life falls neatly into three stages, each comprising forty years. The formative years are lived in Egypt where Moses grows up as a child of two cultures: cared for by his Hebrew mother and adopted by Pharoah’s daughter; the middle years, years of exile in Midian, are triggered by his clumsy attempt to establish himself as the rescuer of the Hebrews (how many leaders have had to retreat from grand plans because of clumsy presumption!); and it’s only at 80 that he reluctantly, and after much protest, embarks on his leadership years.

Along the way his life is shaped by the influence of others, he encounters God, he experiences the highs of leadership as well as its lows, he behaves well and he behaves badly. All of these things provide fascinating insight into the journey of a leader.

Over the past few years I have been particularly interested in some of the factors in the shaping of Christian leaders. My interest has been in the kinds of crucibles that leaders encounter and the role that these experiences play in the the shaping of their journey.

There are crucibles of new territory. Perhaps in the form of a dramatic, life-changing conversion, or in a call to Christian ministry. There are the steep learning curves, the ‘deep end’ experiences and the dramatic paradigm shifts encountered by some pioneering leaders.

There are reversals. Personal or leadership crises (and at times it’s hard to separate the two as one spills into the other). Opposition, conflict and disappointment all feature.

And there are crucibles of isolation, where leaders are set aside from their leadership roles, perhaps through illness. There is the loss of structure that comes with retirement. There are dark nights of the soul when hope is almost drained away.

All of these things – painful as many of them are – have the potential to shape a leader. At times they test or confirm the leader’s sense of call. At times they may highlight issues of character. At other times they force a leader to define who they are and what their leadership is about. Sometimes they serve to depend and strengthen the leader’s relationship with God.

Leaders don’t simply drop out of the sky, fully fitted with all they will ever need. For sure some of them seem to be born with a clear predisposition to leadership. But there is a journey of shaping and formation and the best leaders will go on learning.

Reflect on your own leadership journey:

  • What were some of the early indicators of your leadership gifting?
  • Who were some of the people who influenced you and encouraged you to get involved in leadership?
  • Can you identify clear stages of your leadership development? What were the major features of each of them?
  • What are some of the most significant things you have learned about leadership, and how have you learned them?
  • Have you encountered any crucibles? What were they, and how have they been part of your shaping?

One thought on “Leadership 101: The Making of a Leader

  1. Reblogged this on JS Alan Wilson and commented:

    Leaders don’t simply drop out of the sky, fully fitted with all they will ever need. For sure some of them seem to be born with a clear predisposition to leadership. But there is a journey of shaping and formation and the best leaders will go on learning.

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