Are Leaders Born or Made?

Are Leaders Born or Made? What Makes a Good Manager? Should Businesses Hire Talent—or Mindset? The Mindset That Increases Creativity and Productivity.

In 2001 came the announcement that shocked the corporate world. Enron – the corporate poster child, the company of the future—had gone belly up. What happened? How did such spectacular promise turn into such a spectacular disaster? Was it incompetence? Was it corruption?

It was mindset. According to Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, American corporations had become obsessed with talent. Indeed, the gurus at McKinsey & Company, the premier management consulting firm in the country, were insisting that corporate success today requires the “talent mind-set.” Just as there are naturals in sports, they maintained, there are naturals in business. Just as sports teams write huge checks to sign outsized talent, so too should corporations spare no expense in recruiting talent, for this is the secret weapon, the key to beating the competition.

As Gladwell writes “This ‘talent mind-set’ is the new orthodoxy of American management.” It created the blueprint for the Enron culture and it sowed the seeds of its demise… But by putting their complete faith in talent, Enron did a fatal thing. By creating a culture that worshipped talent, they forced their employees to look and act extraordinarily talented. Basically, it forced them into the fixed mindset. And we know a lot about that. We know from our studies that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies. And a company that cannot self-correct cannot survive. Brutal Bosses:

When bosses become controlling and abusive, they put everyone into a fixed mindset. This means that instead of learning, growing, and moving the company forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged. It starts with the bosses’ worry about being judged, but it winds up being everybody’s fear about being judged. It’s hard for courage and innovation to survive a company-wide fixed mindset.

Are Leaders Born or Made?

When Warren Bennis interviewed great leaders, “they all agreed leaders are made, not born, and made more by themselves than by any external means.” Bennis concurs: “I believe.. that everyone, of whatever age and circumstance, is capable of self-transformation.” Not that everyone will become a leader. Sadly, most managers and even CEOs become bosses, not leaders. They wield power instead of transforming themselves, their workers, and their organization.

Why is this? John Zenger and Joseph Folkman point out that most people when they first become managers enter a period of great learning. They get lots of training and coaching, they are open to ideas, and they think long and hard about how to do their jobs. They are looking to develop. But once they’ve learned the basics, they stop trying to improve. It may seem like too much trouble or they may not see where improvement will take them. They are content to do their jobs rather than making themselves into leaders.

Or, as Morgan McCall argues, many organisations believe in natural talent and don’t look for people with the potential to develop. Not only are these organisations missing out on a big pool of possible leaders, but their belief in natural talent might actually squash the very people they think are the naturals.

New Research on Mindset and Leadership

  1. Researchers Laura Kray and Michael Haselhuhn have shown that people in a growth mindset make better negotiators. They also found that when business school students were taught a growth mindset they learned more skills and got better grades in their negotiation course. Negotiators with a growth mindset were much more able to push past obstacles and reach an agreement that benefited both sides.
  2. Peter Heslin and Gary Latham found that managers with a growth mindset notice improvement in their employees, whereas those with a fixed mindset do not (because they are stuck in their initial impression). When people are taught a growth mindset, they start to be sensitive to improvement.
  3. Peter Heslin, Don Vandewalle, and Gary Latham showed that employees evaluated their growth-mindset managers as providing better coaching for employee development.

When managers were taught a growth mindset, they were more willing to coach employees and the quality of their developmental coaching became higher. Also, managers with a growth mindset actually sought more negative feedback from their subordinates. They wanted to learn how to improve their management techniques and were not threatened by the idea of hearing some negative things about themselves.

Carol Dweck, in her excellent book Mindset has highlighted the differences between a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset, which the illustration below sets out.  Ready the book it is clear that as you grow your company you should look to identify and attract those that have a growth mindset to your talent pool, certainly if it is for a leadership position.