After years upon years of studying, observing, learning, and practicing leadership, I think I’ve arrived at the following conclusion:
Leaders are born, not created.
I know that it is now conventional wisdom to believe that leaders are made. That every person has the capacity to learn to become a leader.
Yes, become a leader.
But I don’t believe that anyone has to become a leader. I believe they already came that way, straight out of the womb.
Leaders are born. And since every person is born, every person is born a leader.
In summary, every person is born a leader and it becomes their choice to accept that (opt in) or refuse that (opt out).
As a parent of three small children, I see innate leadership. I see risk taking and creative problem-solving daily, which tends to drive me nuts. But it’s there. I see compassion and confidence, assertiveness and responsiveness. All children are this way. This is who they are, yet they didn’t attend a John Maxwell seminar. They didn’t read a Simon Sinek book.
So, give this idea a chance and start with the premise that every child is born a leader. What happens as they grow?
Psychologists tell us that babies are born with only 2 fears - the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear is learned. Every other aspect that affects our confidence comes at us, not from within us.
All throughout childhood we are told "no" WAY more often than we are told "yes." No, no, no, no no. Don’t do that. Don’t try that. That’s too dangerous. That’s not appropriate. No, no, no. Hence, some of the qualities of leadership, such as taking risks, creative thinking, and discovery, might begin to diminish.
Then, we start to hear different versions of no, such as “that’s not really your thing” or “I don’t think you can do that.” And we start to believe it.
Then, with good intentions, we begin to learn about leadership and are given books on Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. And leadership begins to look like big charismatic earth-moving people. It also starts to look like titles and positions. To be a leader means to claim that you want to be president when you grow up.
Slowly and methodically, our society begins to drum the leadership out of people by assigning only select traits and attributes to leaders. You need to be a great orator. You need to cast visions upon visions. You need to be charming. You need to be heroic.
And is it any wonder that after years of this, only a few people out of a hundred make it through the gauntlet feeling that leadership is something they possess?
One of the finest professional speakers/educators out there right now is Kevin Wanzer, and I love the message he tells about a child’s bowl of light, which is taken from Hawaiian culture. I found a written version of this from the blog One Vibration:
In ancient times, in Hawaii and throughout the world, each child born was said to have a Bowl of Perfect Light. If the child was taught to respect and love his or her light, the child would grow in strength and health and could swim with the sharks, fly with the birds, and know and understand all things.
If, however, the child got into pilikia, trouble, with thoughts of fear, worry, doubt, judgment, anger, resentment, envy, or jealousy, he or she would drop a stone into the Bowl of Light, and then some of the light would go out because light and stone cannot occupy the same space.
If the child continued to get stones in the bowl, the light would eventually go out, and the child would become a stone. Just like a stone, the child would no longer grow, nor was he or she capable of movement. However, as soon as the child tired of being a stone, all that was needed was to do kalana, forgive this aspect of himself or herself, and turn the bowl upside down to let the stones fall out. All the light could then shine again and grow even brighter than before.Why does this matter? It’s semantics after all. The end result is that some people end up as leaders and some don’t, right? It's no matter where it begins.
Well, for all of us who teach leadership and try to instill it into young people, what if we have been approaching it all wrong? Our programs are based on the idea that in terms of leadership the students standing in front of us are formless lumps of clay that can be molded into leaders.
What if the student standing before you is already a fully-shaped leader that has been covered by the dust, dirt, and grime that comes from years of self-doubt and negative influences? What if our task is to wipe that away? What if creating a leader out of a young person is actually reminding their inner being of the leader that has always been there?
I think our programs and their curriculums would be different. I think the percentage of time spent in self-discovery and confidence building would grow tremendously. Instead of approaching the workshops with the 3 or 5 or 10 steps/tips/qualities/characteristics of leaders, we would instead ask questions to help students dig deeper into their innate leadership qualities.
Let’s get even more interesting. What if we scrapped leadership programs altogether and created programs for adults that teach them how to NOT throw rocks into a young person’s bowl of light. If we diverted all of our time and resources there, might we end up with more people ready to opt into leadership?
It’s not to say there isn’t value in education that helps a person refine their leadership abilities. We were also born with the ability to build, but we need training before we can make that skyscraper.
For those who lead organizations (such as fraternities or sororities), what about those apathetic, non-leader members who we get so worried about? What is causing their disengagement? Is it because they just haven’t attended the right leadership seminar, or heard the right keynote speaker? Or, is it because they have many rocks in their bowl of light? You are in a great position – through words and actions – to help them remove those rocks.
I will continue to work with and explore this idea, to see how it might impact my work. For now, if you’re asking me to help you be a leader, prepare to undertake a journey of self-discovery to find the one you’ve always been. I'm going to ask you to opt back in.
After all, I now believe leaders are born.