Saturday, August 30, 2014

Are Leaders Born or Made?

Yesterday, I attended new student orientation at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

During my breakout session with my academic advisor Dr. Charmon Parker-Williams, she proposed a question to the group of other advisees that has stirred something immense in my very being.

Dr. Parker-Williams asked whether leaders are born or made. Of the group of 10 advisees, 7 sided with "made", while 3 sided with "born". I was on the fence because I believe that it is a hybrid. Agnosticism not being a choice, I had to choose a side. In the end, I sided with "born".

Leadership, in the first place, is contextual. A leader in one situation may be a follower, or even a non-participant, in another. Leadership skills can be taught and developed. If I didn't believe that, why would I be studying I/O Psychology at such a high level? However, it is my fundamental belief that the qualities that allow for the learning and, eventually, the expression of these leadership skills are inherent at birth.

Who we are, our personality, is a conglomerate of who we are on a genetic level coupled with our experiences over time. This is the old nature/nurture paradigm. Who we are changes over time because our experiences morph in that timeframe. However, how we are able to express those changes over time is hard coded into the very essence of our being. A few examples.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a dedicated learner. I vividly remember reading my grandmother's mail and reading the newspaper to my grandmother because she was functionally illiterate. Over time, this developed into academic excellence at every level, up to this day.

I have always taken learning into my own hands. My mom was a good student, and my dad was very intelligent by all accounts. However, I did not grow up in an environment where there were many books, and education was not a concept that was emphasized in my family. Where did this thirst and desire come from?

Well, I believe that it was a combination of the genes that I was born with coupled with the situation that I was born into. I had to have the mind to read a newspaper written for adults at the ripe old age of 5, whilst growing up in the situation of having an illiterate grandmother, who I loved and cared deeply for.

Let's look at elite athletes versus very good athletes. Hall of Fame wide receiver Chris Carter frequently talks about his induction weekend at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Chris brought his childhood friends with him to Canton. All of Chris' friends played sports with him as a youth, yet he was the only one that played professionally and, eventually, was immortalalized in the HOF.

Chris' friends all said that there was just "something different" about him, even as a young kid. What was that "something different"? Yes, it was the fact that he grew up in abject poverty.

That experience pushed him to pursue a better life. Chris also came from a family that produced several pro athletes. This fact alone speaks to both having examples of athletic excellence around him and, most importantly, the genetics to express this talent.

There is a razor thin line that separates elite athletes, and people in general, from great, average, good, and mediocre people (in any walk of life). That line is defined by what we generally observe to be grit, determination, will, desire, resilience and the like.

Can those qualities be taught? Yes, but on a superficial level. What causes those qualities to be hard coded? Do the precursors have to be present for the training to have something to attach itself to like a computer program must have a processor upon which to imprint the code?

Another good example is the psychological trait of sociopathy. Sociopathy has been proven by science to be a trait that one is born with. It is an inherited trait in fact. How sociopathy is expressed is the sum result of one's experiences over time.

Negative experiences coupled with improper training may yield a sociopath who becomes a rapist or pick pocket. Positive experiences coupled with more traditional training may yield a stock broker, CEO, lawyer, physician, or an elite athlete (all of these fields measure highly for the trait of sociopathy).

The quintessential example that I can elicit derives from the area of stem cell research. Biologist have discovered that stem cells are the basic building blocks of every component of organic bodies.

For example, scientist harvest stem cells from the umbilical cords of human babies, add a stimuli, and can then produce a liver, kidney, retina or other organ in the human body. Heretofore, scientists can not produce the stem cells themselves. Only God or nature, depending on your belief system, can perform this action.

A sculptor can chisel away at a block of granite or marbel, and create a beautiful statue, but they can not produce the stone itself. They harvest the block from a quarry. The quarry itself was formed by water and other elements shaping the base materials over eons. The base materials are organic materials that either fell from space or were formed from materials that are indigenous to the earth. Who or what formed those organic materials? Diamonds are another example of this analogy.

The question of whether leaders are made or born speaks to the very question that humans have asked since we became conscious beings. From whence came us?

As an I/O Psychologist, I am bound by objective data derived from observation and testing. I then use this data to create training & development plans that are tailored to individuals and that, ultimately, meet the needs and goals of these individuals and the organizations that these individuals work for and within.

To me, it is important to understand where a person comes from in order to facilitate where they are going in various contexts. A huge component of who we are, aside from our experiences, is how we are. This is the part that scares scientists to this day because it can't be explained through traditional scientific inquiry. We have mapped the human genome, but we can not explain the existence of the materials which compose it.

However, we can't ignore what we heretofore can't explain. Is this not the basis of scientific inquiry to seek answers where none appear to be? As I/O Psychologists, we must reconcile this seemingly unanswerable query in order to properly assist the people and organizations that we work for with becoming their best selves and institutions.

Such science has been used negatively in the past to justify the superiority or inferiority of certain races and genders. This misuse of knowledge can not scare us from reasonable inquiry because, in the end, we are the expression of our genes.

Our genes are the acorns that produce the evergreen. Our experiences, training, and education are the ornaments that adorn the fern, creating the Christmas tree. Let us not find ourselves in the abyss of valuing the ornaments at the expense of the tree.

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