Great Leaders – Born or made?

Great Leaders: Born or made?

Battle of Ideas 2013

Institutions in crisis?

Saturday 19 October,

Barbican Centre, Cinema 2.


Many are called. Just about all are chosen as well. At least, that’s what the new fashion for modern leadership training seems to imply. There is a constant stream of literature, endless executive acceleration conferences, away day programmes for emerging leaders and seminars aiming at turning ineffectual executives into formidable Churchills. And many individuals in both in the public and private sectors are willing participants on such courses. But can teaching leadership really solve the crisis at the heart of rudderless institutions? Trust in those who lead is at an all-time low. There is little faith in those who head up the BBC, the EU, the NHS or for politicians and corporate CEOs in general.

While there are plenty of charismatic leaders around, from Obama to Branson, too few seem prepared to take responsibility, act decisively, see initiatives through or even have confidence in their own judgement. ‘The buck stops here’ seems to have been replaced by passing the buck. The plethora of inquiries and consultants, bringing in outsiders to investigate and advise on organisations’ internal problems, speaks to a trend to outsource difficult decisions. A report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills last year showed nearly three quarters of organisations in England reported a deficit of management leadership skills.

Addressing this deficit is a new multi-million pound industry of leadership training, executive coaching and self-help manuals. Leadership has become commoditised and professionalised – now available for sale in hard back rather than being hard-won through experience. But is it true that leadership is a set of generic skills that can be taught irrespective of context? And doesn’t leadership by numbers, following a ‘best practice’ script, paradoxically restrain people from exercising judgement, a key part of showing leadership? In a culture that penalises those who use their initiative without following procedures, that preaches caution, can a diploma in leadership really help anyone buck the trend? Do qualifications, name-plates, academic titles confer real authority? Is there a danger of substituting formulae for more organic experience and practical wisdom? Or are such leadership courses a useful mechanism for restoring trust in institutions’ leaders and giving confidence and skills to those who at present don’t dare to lead?


Neil Davenport
writer; head of sociology, JFS Sixth Form Centre; contributor, spiked
Tracey Groves
partner, PwC
Robert Phillips
Head of Chambers, Jericho Chambers; co-author, Citizen Renaissance; author, Trust in Me?(forthcoming)
Professor Kathryn Riley
London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education; author, Leadership of Place: stories from the US, UK & South Africa
Mike Wright
executive director, Jaguar Land Rover
Dr Mark Taylor
deputy head of school, Addey and Stanhope comprehensive school; London convenor, IoI Education Forum
Dr Mark Taylor deputy head of school, Addey and Stanhope comprehensive school; London convenor, IoI Education Forum.

Tiemo Talk of the Town review

This debate promised much with high hopes a distinguished looking panel of leaders and academics comprising Neil Davenport (Writer and Head of Sociology, JFS Sixth Form Centre), Tracey Groves, Partner PwC; Robert Phillips, Head of Chambers, Jericho Chambers; Professor Kathryn Riley, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education and Mike Wright, Executive Director, Jaguar Land Rover.

Unfortunately for much of the debate they failed to answer the title question of whether great leaders were born or made, or shed much light on what factors make great leaders. It took much prompting from the audience for the panel to begin to really address the questions in hand they had come to hear answers to.

Leader’s Role

Mike Wright was lucid in stating that the leader’s role is to “determine a purpose and vision. To clarify what the future will be. It’s important for the leader to accept responsibility even if they are not directly involved in anything that goes wrong.”

Time is also crucial to great leaders in that they make speedy decisions and give clear, unambiguous direction. He mentioned that he has had the good fortune to spend time with leaders who have worked on natural disaster operations and he had observed such qualities within them and saw just how vital those skills were in such critical life and death circumstances.

Whilst everyday life and business isn’t quite so important or as dramatic, such an attitude and spirit of can do leadership translates well into business and other spheres of life where firm leadership is a pre-requisite for success.

Robert Phillips was especially eloquent and humorous in getting his points across. He was of the view that the people who set the platform for change are every bit as important as the leader and his/her impact. By this I think he meant the team behind a leader. In politics it could refer to the civil service or the staff behind the implementation of key initiatives in any organisation.

Listening and participation is crucial i.e. it’s important to listen to the team’s/public’s/customer’s views and allow that to inform your leadership. A leader needs to know the thoughts and direction of travel of their followers. In a business sense I would relate this to the importance of listening to your customers … or ex-customers if you don’t satisfy their needs!

Mike Wright mentioned that the Jaguar customer in Britain is a different customer to the typical American customer and therefore by being attuned to their different needs Jaguar is able to adapt and serve varied international customer bases.

Mike emphasised it is vital for the leader to get the best out of his/her workforce, to use all manner of communication systems available, including social media and being a good orator.

Gender and leadership

Tracey Groves, PwC Partner, responded to a question on the impact and relevance of gender to leadership. She said there are around 12 factors involved in decision making. In her experience/research she felt that women leader’s decisions  tended to be driven by love, men’s by other factors including strategy and simply making the right decision.

That view was challenged by one of the Ushers/microphone women who said she hated gender valued leadership and said though she “all woman from the neck down” her leadership style wasn’t gender orientated.

I think that comment from Tracey needed challenging. Surely leadership is goal orientated with successful leaders striving to achieve goals through their efforts allied to those of their teams. How effectively they manage to do that will in no small part be down to the relationships they build with their staff.

Tracey also made the valid point that you don’t need a title to be a leader. I agree. Many can be a leader in their own way, in what they do and the people they influence, be it colleagues, friends and others.

Neil Davenport emphasised the importance of building good relationships, stating that “real leadership requires an organic connection with people. Ensure your etiquette is always correct as a leader is often open to scrutiny.”

Robert Phillips recommended people read, ‘What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets’, by Michael Sandel.


Key leadership traits identified included having a clear vision and purpose; communicating this to your staff and teams; listening to your workforce and customers; being a good orator and communicating via all means – including verbally, in writing and/or via social media.

I think we could have had a livelier debate about leadership, what makes a great leader versus a poor leader, citing examples of current or historic leaders to shape the debate. However there were some useful key factors identified – for any leaders really. It wasn’t made clear if there are separate factors great leaders have over good or OKAY leaders.

Or maybe the point is if you adopt good leadership styles and achieve results you are a great leader? Can it be taught or is it just instinctive? I think it’s a combination of the two. You will even observe leaders on any children’s playground – leaders of the pack so to speak, instinctively leading their peers. Natural leadership may serve men and women well as adults, but it is clear that many would benefit from leadership training to lead men and women, many of whom may well not want to be lead or want to go in a different direction to that you require.

I therefore would conclude that leadership can be taught, but it certainly has to be practised, honed, tested and adapted, otherwise it is just an academic exercise.

©Tiemo Talk of the Town

22nd October 2013

Further reading from Battle of Ideas 2013.

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