Are Great Leaders Born or Made?

If you want to be a doctor, it takes over a decade. You can’t wake up one morning and decide to do surgery. You can’t do an “accelerated track” for “high potential medical students” and get up to speed in a couple years. You need four years of undergrad, four years of medical school, and then a few years of residency on top of that. Some specialties require follow-on fellowships before they can practice medicine on their own.

Everyone knows: it takes time to become a doctor.

So why do we think differently about leaders?

Great leaders are not born. They are made.

It takes time to build a leader. It’s an inherently introspective process which requires years of self-reflection. If the first time someone thinks about themselves as a leader is the day they’re put in charge, they’re going to be way behind the power curve in terms of personal growth.

You don’t need to wait until you are in charge to begin your leadership journey. Thinking of yourself as a leader, whether you are in a formal leadership role or not, tilts your perspective towards growth. When something goes wrong at work, an aspiring leader will picture himself in their supervisor’s shoes and think about how they would react. These thought experiments form rudimentary case studies, applied over years, for compounded gains.

Believe it or not, the Army treats its brand new privates like future leaders. Yes, they are made to do pushups. Yes, they make their bed and clean the bathrooms. Yes, their Drill Sergeant will yell at them if they mess up. Yet, the whole time, that Drill Sergeant knows that those same privates will eventually be team leaders, squad leaders, or even Sergeants Major. When the time comes for a freshly promoted Sergeant to take over her team, she’s been preparing for it mentally for years.

The lesson here is twofold.

One, if you aren’t in a formal leadership role, adjust your mindset to one of a leader-in-training. Focus on your actions and habits. If your boss were to do those same things, what would you think? Begin acting like the leader you want to be, now. Reflect on leaders you have now or have worked for in the past. What about them did you like? What didn’t you like? What would you replicate and what would you do differently?

Two, if you are a leader in your organization, begin treating your teammates like future leaders from day one. The sooner they begin the leadership development process, the better. Why wait until they’ve been identified as top performers? Start now.