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Are leaders born, made or just poached?

May 2013

By Liza van Wyk

When Agang South Africa leader Mamphela Ramphele launched the party, she was accused of failing to announce prominent individuals who had joined the party as it prepares to contest next year’s general elections. All she said was many experienced parliamentarians and “battle hardened activists” would join Agang’s national and provincial leaders in the coming months.

For me this evoked an age old question, I mean the chicken-and-egg question: Are leaders born or are they made? Why would Agang depend on ready-made leaders from other parties?

Why can’t Agang SA and every political party, company or organisation, breed, groom or produce its own leaders? After all, countries, parties and even companies groom their own leaders? Where was Barack Obama (US President) 15 years ago? Where was David Cameron (British Prime Minister) six years ago? Where was Lindiwe Mazibuko (Democratic Alliance leader) a few years ago.

Where was Adrian Gore (Group CEO of Discovery Group) 20 years ago Sim Shabalala (Standard Bank joint CEO) five years ago?

When did you first hear about these leaders? The above political and business leaders and hundreds others are evidence that some individuals are born with natural abilities that propel them to leadership. On the other hand it is possible to develop leadership skills in an individual.

Too often we only see what appear to be natural leadership skills as people emerge from the shadows of outgoing leaders – from Bill Clinton to Obama, from Jaco Maree to Sim Shabalala - and fail to see the work, time, and effort that the individuals, parties and companies have devoted to getting them to a position of leadership.

There are many witty quotations on what leadership means to the people and society at large. Harold R. McAlindon said that “A leader may not follow where the path may lead. He goes instead where there is no path and leaves a trail'.

Thomas Carlyle described leadership in simple words: 'The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe said: “What chance gathers is easily scattered. A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.”

So to the question of are leaders born or made, my answer is simple: leaders are born and leaders are made.

Regardless of the leader being born or developed, there are common denominators such as intelligence, communication skills, charisma, followers, creativity, and humility that automatically surfaces as they are given an opportunity to assume leadership roles.

On the other hand, I would argue that those qualities - as intelligence, communication skills, charisma, followers, creativity, and humility - are the result of interactions, experiences and transactions involving a person from birth until the time that you meet them.

For me, the four, intelligence, communications skills, charisma and followers makes a leader.

Intelligence develops a leader faster and more complete. Regardless of the party, business or company, there can never be a substitute for intelligence.

If there are followers, there's communication; and when there's communication, inevitably a person emerges as an opinion leader and subject matter expert and influences the way they are perceived by others and thus becomes credible.  Therefore a person needs followers to be considered a leader; otherwise, he's just one of the masses.

Here the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was spot on when she said: “Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. And watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become. My father always said that... and I think I am fine.”

The Iron Lady was right. We all admire a leader who inspire us, stands by us in times of joy and pain and shares with us joys and triumphs. Whether a leader is born or made, what actually matters is the ability to lead from the front, confidently, winning the confidence of those who look up to you.

Good leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion. That's what great leaders are made of.

Who remembers this vision from former President Nelson Mandela: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

This was Nelson Mandela’s defense statement during the Rivonia Trial in 1964.  He repeated this during the closing of his speech delivered in Cape Town on the day he was released from prison 27 years later, on 11 February 1990.

The above statements show that Mandela had a vision when confronted with challenges, a leader will have enough strength to face it and enough stamina to sustain throughout the period - - 27 years in jail - - and enough brilliance to come through, blazing new trails, shedding new light, leading through innovation and foresight that spell victory as Mandela did for his party in the first democratic elections.

Indeed, a leader with vision such as Mandela, has a clear, vivid picture of where to go, as well as a firm grasp on what success looks like and how to achieve it. A leader sees the big picture. But it's not enough to have a vision; leaders must also share it and act upon it. Nelson Mandela has been such a leader.

It is at this point when I agree with those who say leaders are made. You just can't teach charisma and, character.

Leaders are magnanimous and ensure that credit for successes is spread as widely as possible throughout the territory, takes personal responsibility for failures and their humility, recognise that they are no better or worse than others and are also listens to new ideas, even if they do not conform to the usual way of thinking.

So what makes leaders effective is not a natural ability; it is their desire to lead people, combined with a set of learned skills that they apply as leaders. The only real ingredient is the desire to lead and the rest is learnt, thus the desire to lead is the motivational ingredient that drives people to lead; the skills learned along the way are what allow them to lead people.

The fact is that the vast majority of leaders who depend solely on their innate skills are unlikely to be as successful as those that invest in skill development - particularly finance and marketing skills.

We live in challenging times so there's a need to develop the skills that will equip future business leaders with the ability to survive economic austerity and to grow their markets.

The ability of SMEs especially to compete is linked to their capacity to get certain things right - like marketing, branding and selling - but it's also related to their ability to exhibit leadership.

So many leaders are born with great qualities - but the most successful also acknowledge that to become the best possible front runner they also have much to learn!

Let the ANC, Agang, DA, Discovery, FNB, Standard Bank and all others groom and breed their leaders.. While there are some benefits to poaching and stealing from other parties or companies, people will only remain loyal and perform at their best if they can see a career path within their own organisation.


Liza van Wyk is CEO of AstroTech Training who offers leadership development training. Visit or call 0861 AstroTech.