Please Don’t Ask Me This Question About Leadership
A leadership consultant confesses their least favorite question
Our ideas about what it means to be a good leader have evolved over the years. A prominent theory of leadership is that history can be understood through the impact of superior men. This is known as the great man theory popularized by historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. It rests on the tenet that certain men have innate qualities that make them unquestionable leaders. There’s a strong heroic masculine quality to all this. A feeling of leading being destiny accompanies this line of thinking. You either are a leader from birth or you’re not. This idea is largely out of favor but the ethos still exists especially in certain circles.
The great man theory is the source of my most dreaded question:
Are leaders born rather than made?
This is a pretty common question that’s frequently asked in interviews. Now I let interviewers know in advance that I’m happy to answer just about any question, except that one.
For me, it’s not really a useful question. It’s the old nature vs nurture argument. It just cemented outdated ideas about leadership. As you can imagine, I disagree with the nature argument. My work, especially Leadership Archetypes, pushes against this type of thinking. Leadership as destiny rewards a certain kind of person. This leaves out many important voices and contributions.
Today there’s support for other styles like servant leadership, focused on serving. These approaches are more altruistic than autocratic. It’s heartening as someone with a non-traditional style (according to the classic stereotype). Changing our perspective opens opportunities for people we wouldn’t have called leaders in the past — those who didn’t fit the so-called pattern.
I recently spoke with a leader 20 years into their career. Their style of leading focuses on getting results through people. Rather than stand in the front with a megaphone, they prefer an inclusive style of decision-making. Behind the scenes, they spend hours helping level up the capacity of others. Despite getting results, several bosses told them to change their style — to be tougher, stronger, louder…