Are leaders born or made? This is a question that many scholars, psychologists, and everyday people have asked before our time, and will even after we are gone. Some have argued that great leaders are born. Still others have argued that great leaders are made. So, which is it, traits or skills that makes someone a great leader?
Lord, DeVader, and Alliger, found that the individuals’ perceptions of leadership were associated to traits (.Northouse, 2016, p. 20). Take John F. Kennedy, one of the greatest leaders of the modern era. People found him to be charismatic, intelligent, masculine, and self-confident. During Stogdill’s first survey he found eight traits of leadership, intelligence, alertness, insight, responsibility, initiative, persistence, self-confidence, and sociability (Northouse, 2016, p. 20). We can see from Stogdill’s first survey that John F. Kennedy had a lot of these traits. Were these traits the reason he was a great leader?
In 1955 Robert Katz wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review called “Skills of an Effective Administrator” (Northouse, 2016, p. 43). Within this article Katz described three skill sets of an administrator. The skills were technical, human, and conceptual. Technical skills are the knowledge about specific type of work, human skills is how to work with people, and conceptual skills are the ability to work with ideas and concepts (Northouse, 2016, p. 44-45). The argument is people can learn these skills.
John F. Kennedy was a poor student when he was younger. He went to a boarding school called Canterbury, and besides his bad grades went to Choate, an elite Connecticut preparatory school. It was there where he showed brilliance in the subjects he liked, but managed just average grades in the subjects he did not like. It was not until he was an upperclassman at Harvard, that he got serious about his studies. “He began to realize his potential” (Biography.com Editors, 2017). He later joined the U.S. Navy and commanded a patrol torpedo boat. On August 2, 1943 during an act from the Japanese, an injured Kennedy led survivors to safety until help could arrive (Biography.com Editors, 2017).
John learned the skill technical, human, and conceptual skills in every step of his education right up through and into the Navy. Do you believe that Kennedy would have been the man he was without the educational background, and the experience in the Navy? Some may say yes and others would say no. During his youth, Kennedy was more interested in sports and women (Biography.com Editors, 2017). It was not until he took his studies seriously, did Kennedy start to become the man he was going to be.
“Skills are what leaders can accomplish, whereas traits are who leaders are” (Northouse, 2016, p. 44). We can see that is true with Kennedy. There is no denying that he was charismatic, intelligent, and self-confident. These were his traits, the person who he was. He learned to work with people, and with ideas. John developed the skill that great leaders need.
So, are great leaders made or are they born? For me it is a little of both. We can see that people love J.F.K. for the person he was, or by his traits. It was not until he started to learn skills to go along with those traits did a leader start to be born. If a person has the skills but no leadership traits, could they be a leader? If they have the traits but no skills, could they be a leader? It is possible, but to be a great leader, you need both skills and traits.
Biography.com Editors. (2017, October 27). John F. Kennedy Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/us-president/john-f-kennedy
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.