I have spent most my life in leadership at one level or another. My leadership experience began in sports, playing, coaching and officiating. That season was invaluable, as was every subsequent phase of the journey in pastoral leadership, in the non-profit world, in business and in the academic arena. Every step was a laboratory of life and leadership. Then, as I began to teach leadership and management, I searched through all the seemingly random data this journey had provided in an effort to formulate transferable concepts. Had I just accumulated miles on my personal odometer or had I really profited from the trek? I knew where I had been and what I had done. The question remained, what had I learned and could I teach it?
Some say they have had forty-five years of experience when, in fact, they have had one year of experience…forty-five times. THAT I did not want. I wanted to learn from the journey, every step of the journey, including, and perhaps especially, my failures. When I started the National Institute of Christian Leadership, my desired outcomes were clear in my mind. “Keep it practical, keep it real and structure it in an understandable format for anyone at any stage of their leadership.” That was it.
Through all the years of teaching this material, of revising it and adding to it and constantly improving it, I continue to learn. It is interesting, however, that the first lecture in the entire institute is the one that has changed the least. That lecture is on the nature of leadership. Also interesting is the fact that out of the whole year of intensely practical instruction, this lecture is probably the most theoretical. Yet it remains one of the most popular things I teach.
I have to ask myself why. I believe it comes down to one question, one which intrigues leaders and learners alike: Are leaders born, or can they be made? That is the question. Those who consider themselves “natural” leaders are the most likely to be confident of the answer and dismissive of the question. They tend to respond out of their own experience. “Look, you’re either a leader or you’re not. You may learn a few management techniques along the way, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
That line of thought is actually at the heart of why many natural leaders never really develop their potential. They feel no need to develop their natural gift. They learned early on what worked pretty well for them in elementary school, so they they just keep on doing in the board room what worked on the playground. This can actually cause their giftedness to devolve in some very tragic ways. The playground leader may become the board room bully. The third grade beauty who learned she could get what she wanted with a smile, may become a master manipulator.
I do not deny that natural leadership is a reality. What I do deny is that it is sufficient. There are leadership techniques that are highly successful on the grammar school monkey bars which will fail utterly on the sidelines of a college football game. Likewise there are leadership skills which work just fine in the locker room or in a huddle, which simply will not work in a staff meeting or with a group of upset volunteers. The natural leader should thank God for the gift within and spend the rest of their lives perfecting that treasure. We are called of God not to a single and primary shelf of glory, but from glory unto glory unto glory unto glory….
The counterbalance to that is the one who is not or, at least, does not see himself or herself as a natural leader. The question of leadership gifts versus learned skills may be dismissed by the natural leader with a confident smile and a cavalier shrug. However, the question may haunt and even demoralize those who view themselves on the lower end of whatever scales measure such leadership “gifts.”
The natural leader may enjoy the luxury of building on a genetic foundation. They should acknowledge the gift within them, be grateful, remain humble and add to their giftedness, discipline and maturity. Having said all that, the not-so-gifted are hardly disqualified. They can master skills that will drastically catapult them past the gifted leader who remains immature and undisciplined. I am absolutely persuaded, without any reservation, that while gifts are as wonderful as they are, successful leadership and management are not dependent on gifts alone.
This, then, is the balance. The “natural” leader, that kid who shines on the playground, must add to all that, discipline, maturity and learned skills. The rest of us, which, by the way, is most of us, are by no means left out. Because we see few of those “natural gifts” resident within us, we are not somehow disqualified from leadership. We can learn leadership. We can master management. We cannot make ourselves more gifted than we are. We can vault beyond our gifts or our apparent lack of them, to a place of solid, mature leadership.
Is leadership natural or can it be learned? That is the question. The answer is, YES.