Are Leaders Born or Are They Made?
Five years ago at a dinner I attended, Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, attempted to answer this question: Are leaders born or made? Since that dinner, I have often reflected on his answer, and at times I'm provoked to pursue this question further when life presents an opportunity to do so.
This question has been at the forefront of my mind since landing in Europe as part of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship program. Over the course of my time traveling with MMF, I have had the opportunity to examine this question on the ground with local leaders. I had the privilege of meeting with two gentlemen from the Czech Republic and Serbia respectively.
While the two men were from different places, their experiences were strikingly similar. The years leading up their nineteenth birthdays were both spent under oppressive political rule, and though years and miles apart, their stories and experiences of activism thereafter are very much the same.
I was able to ask both men two questions: 1) what moment in time affected your course in life most and 2) throughout your life, what are you most proud of? Both men, by all accounts, are exceptional leaders. They have had multi-decade careers fostering the development of democracy both nationally and abroad. When answering these two questions, I could tell that both were transported back to the activism of their youth. Neither could clearly articulate why they had chosen not only to participate, but to lead underground movements, both replying that "it just happened that way."
As the two men told their stories, both said, without hesitation, that there was a specific moment in time that affected them so deeply as to make them realize that the path to take back their country was the only path that remained. They did not look for a moment, the moment found them. The gravity of war was visible as they shared what they were most proud of: fighting and winning. They took up a mantle few had the courage for, at an age typically known for irresponsibility and petulance. And yet for these leaders, more remains to be done.
I have come to a greater understanding that "behind the curtain," people who live in what was the former Eastern Bloc have been forced to play a zero sum game where winning is everything. But toppling their respective governments’ political order was not the end of their struggle; it was a win, not the win. Now, as members of a new order, leaders from Eastern Europe not only have to fight current economic realities, but also centuries of history, memory, and tradition. The ideals of the movement for democracy in the Czech Republic and Serbia, shared and led by these two gentlemen, hang precariously in the balance of a young and fragile political system and evolving democracy.
Are leaders born or made? I'd say that after my MMF experiences my answer to this question would now be both. According to their own reports, the younger versions of these men were unvarnished, raw, spontaneous, and impatient for change—and yet they were leaders then. The men I met this month, their older selves, had fought hard, were experienced, and knew that certain forms of change take time—and had matured into different kinds of leaders now.
This may be the biggest leadership lesson these two men embodied. The ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances above all allowed these men to be leaders throughout their careers.
Megan Owen, Business Development Director at McKinstry in Seattle, is a Fall 2012 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.