The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Are Leaders Born or Made?

“Leadership is more closely aligned with being a positive energizer than any other attribute. When people interact with a positive energizer, they are uplifted, elevated, and inspired.”

Kim S. Cameron | July 22, 2016
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A young woman contemplates the role of leadership in her life.



I was recently engaged in a conversation with some scholars from Europe who advocated the position that leadership is an inherent attribute of individuals.  Some people have it, and some people don’t.  “For the most part, leaders are born, not made,” they asserted.

I came down pretty firmly on the opposite side of that argument; namely, that, “Leaders are made.” This is the entire philosophy undergirding the field of education.  That is, education as an endeavor makes the assumption that we can affect behavior; we can improve people’s performance; we can influence individuals by exposing them to certain material.  If education doesn’t work, if it has no impact on individuals’ performance and capabilities, if we are essentially born with all the attributes, capabilities, skills, and strengths we will demonstrate in our lives, why are we going to school for heaven’s sake?  If we accept the premise that leaders are born, then we are largely wasting our time in school and dismissing the power of education. 

For me, leadership is one of the capabilities that we develop through the process of education.

Now, of course, there are obvious reasons to go to school just to broaden our understanding of the world around us and to obtain useful knowledge.  But education, at its very core, is focused on helping human beings become better and developing into contributing human beings.  For me, leadership is one of the capabilities that we develop through the process of education.  This implies that anyone can develop the attributes and competencies of leadership.

This argument assumes, of course, we know what leadership is.  The academic literature has many different definitions of leadership.  For example, leadership is sometimes equated with hierarchical position.  This is called traditional, power-based, or authoritative leadership.  It is leadership based position or title.  Other models of leadership include transformation leadership, servant leadership, charismatic leadership, positive leadership, and so on.  All of these models of leadership emphasize certain attributes that can be, for the most part, developed and learned.  We can develop leaders at any point in their careers, at any point in the organization, or in any role in which they are assigned.  My friend Bob Quinn has written in one of his books, “Everyone is a leader at some time, and no one is a leader all the time.”  I believe that statement.

I have discovered that leadership is more closely aligned with being a positive energizer than any other attribute.

In my own empirical research, I have discovered that leadership is more closely aligned with being a positive energizer than any other attribute.  When people interact with a positive energizer, they are uplifted, elevated, and inspired.  Positive energizers are life-giving rather than being life-depleting.  The kind of energy they display is called relational energy, which is different from physical energy, mental energy, or emotional energy.  Each of these latter three types of energy is depleted when expressed.  They require recuperation or recovery time after being displayed.  Relational energy, on the other hand, is renewing and elevated when expressed.  We are renewed and elevated when we engage in flourishing, uplifting, and energizing relationships.  Do you ever become exhausted by being with someone with whom you have a loving, supportive, caring relationship?  In my own research, positively energizing leaders have been found to be significantly more powerful in accounting for performance than any other attribute in both individuals and organizations.   

No comprehensive list exists, but the attributes are all capable of being developed.

A variety of characteristics and behaviours are associated with positively energizing leaders.  No comprehensive list exists, but the attributes are all capable of being developed.  Among them are helping other people flourish, solving rather than creating problems, expressing gratitude and humility, creating high quality interpersonal connections, seeing opportunities for improvement, trusting and being trustworthy, inspiring a sense of profound purpose,  and increasing the vitality of those with whom interactions occur.  No one is born with competency in being a positively energizing leader, and whereas we all possess different gifts and inclinations toward acquiring certain attributes, everyone can develop the attributes associated with positively energizing leadership.