Leaders are Born and Made

A few years ago, I sat in the office of a professor of management at a top-tier business school. This respected, senior faculty member confessed to me that no one at the business school knew how to teach leadership. They just inserted the word in course titles, he shrugged, to placate students’ hunger for leadership-oriented courses.

The conversation caused me to reflect on whether or not leadership can be taught. I live in a world of both/and rather than either/or, so it is to be expected that my reaction was yes and no. Do I think that there are particular skills and modes of thinking that can magnify the impact of a person within his or her network of relationships? Yes. Do I think you could take any random chap off the street and turn him into Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Lou Gerstner or Jack Welch? No, I don’t.

I think that there are a set of predispositions and formative life experiences that contribute to a person’s ability to lead. But I also think that a person’s ability to lead is determined by how he or she invests those predispositions and how he or she processes those formative life experiences.

By way of analogy, I have had the opportunity to meet a fair number of certifiable geniuses in my life thus far. There is a remarkably weak correlation between raw intellectual ability and overall life success. This phenomenon may be attributable to a few factors, but chief among them is the lullaby ease of giftedness. I think of intelligence as a basic measure of the tackiness of your brain for certain types of data. Some brains are so sticky that you only have to throw data at them once for the information to stick. These brains are like fly paper tangled up with saran wrap and coated with marshmallow creme. For other brains, you must keep tossing data at them repeatedly (i.e., studying) like one of those weak, dollar-store Velcro ball-and-paddle games. And each brain has certain types of information that stick more easily than others. For example, as a teenager I found I could pick up modern, spoken languages with relative ease but struggled mightily with ancient, unspoken languages. In conventional educational terms, this is because I am primarily an auditory learner. (Which is one explanation for why I didn’t read much as a kid.)

Certain individuals possess the innate, God-given ability to perform certain tasks at a high-level without much repetition or practice. They are “naturals.” These are the people who made straight-A’s without studying, won blue ribbons at the art show without lessons, or scored a touchdown the first time they stepped onto a football field. The problem with innate ability, though, is its tendency to sabotage motivation. When something comes easily to a person, the challenge of completing a task is an insufficient motivator. You see this with jocks who are content being a big fish in a small pond or with nerds who suffer from intractable boredom in school. For a gifted individual to achieve at high levels over a long period of time, there must be a marriage of ability and motivation. That motivation can be created by external, circumstantial obstacles, but in most cases, sustained motivation is the output of internal, psychological dissonance. Most often, a momentary, external obstacle such as a child being abandoned by a parent or a player being cut from the team will be translated into a lifelong, internal fire. That’s why so many eminent philosophers, CEOs, and musical artists are such head cases: their “issues” are inseparable from their achievements. Michael Jordan played for his sixth NBA championship not because he was cut from his high school team, but because of the insatiable competitiveness kindled by that momentary sense of rejection and inadequacy.

In many fields, we see people who have the ability but not the motivation, or the motivation but not the ability. When a person has both, look out. When a person has undeniable ability but unsatisfactory motivation, they get excoriated daily on Twitter and ESPN. When a person has the motivation but not the ability, they become a rogue vice presidential nominee.

Leadership is this way, too. You need the ability to lead others and also the desire to lead with excellence.

Over the last few years, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on leadership. I have concluded that the ideal leader, like the ideal chocolate chip cookie, has a short list of ingredients. Listing those ingredients is not rocket surgery. Instilling those skills and refining those modes of thinking—in yourself or in others—is the real magic.

According to my study and observation, there are three essential elements of leadership:

1. Motivation, the drive to attain more

2. Decision, the wisdom to choose well

3. Communication, the eloquence to create understanding

Over the next few weeks, I hope to articulate in a series of essays here at Media Rostra the dynamics of this theory of leadership. More to come.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.


  1. Excellent analysis! I look forward to the series. The discernment of great leaders is what I find most perplexing. Leaders know how to inspire and incubate cognitive change (creating the motivating dissonance you mentioned) until followers reach a tipping point, ripe for behaviorial change.

  2. benponderNo Gravatar says:

    I had read it before, Sean, but thank you for bringing it back to my attention. It is so, so good. The section that was lifted off the page for me reading it again: “We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming
    power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us
    complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know
    how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know
    how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them.
    Who think about how to get things done, but not whether
    they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the
    greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been
    trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no
    interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.
    What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers.”

  3. 4. surround yourself with people who will/must follow you and then avoid/get rid of people with strong personalities

    What say you?

  4. well written