Are Leaders Born or Made?

There is no shortage of opinions, but also no definitive answer.

June 3, 2013

Leaders: Born or made?

We posed this eternal question to three executives interviewed about leadership development in the May issue of Credit Union Magazine.

“I believe leadership capability falls along the bell curve,” says Dave Gunderson, president/CEO of $690 million asset Credit Union of Southern California in Whittier. “Some people are born leaders, but they still have to develop some skills. Then there’s the bottom 10-15% that, no matter how hard they try, are likely never to become leaders.

“But then there’s the middle of the curve where the vast majority of us live,” he continues. “Two-thirds of leaders are made.”

Matt Monge, chief workplace culture officer at $477 million asset Mazuma Credit Union, Kansas City, Mo., believes the determining characteristic of leaders is becoming comfortable in your skin and accepting your vulnerability.

“It’s the ability that someone has to be human, to be flawed, imperfect, and be OK with those things,” Monge says. “It’s usually those people who learn. They’re ok with the fact that they don’t know something, so they go out and learn stuff.

“People gravitate toward them because they’re like them,” he continues. “Those are the sorts of people who start leading accidentally. When I look around an organization for leaders, the people who stand out aren’t so much the ones asking, ‘What do I have to do to become a manager?’ It’s those who are already doing it.”

For Rudy Pereira, president/CEO of $1.3 billion asset Royal Credit Union, Eau Claire, Wis., it’s not about external influences—it’s a matter of desire.

“A big part of leadership for me starts with the individual: Do they really want to learn to be a leader?” Pereira says. “I don’t think you’re born a leader. I think you can be born charismatic. But as we know, not every charismatic person is a leader, and not every noncharismatic person is not a leader. It first starts with this insatiable desire to learn.

“Therefore you’ve got to absorb; to understand what it takes,” he adds. “At the end, I come to this conclusion: There is no necessarily one right way, but it’s a combination of many different things. There’s not one program that can make you a leader. It’s a journey.”

Sidebar: What are your favorite books on leadership?
Matt Monge, Mazuma CU:
  • “Servant Leadership,” by Robert Greenleaf
  • “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” by Patrick Lencioni
  • “Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution,” by Lisa Bodell
  • “Linchpin,” by Seth Godin

Dave Gunderson, CU of Southern California:
  • “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins
  • “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done,” by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan
  • “Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs,” by Bill Hybels
  • “The Four Disciplines of Execution,” by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling
  • “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” by John W. Maxwell

Rudy Pereira, Royal CU:
  • “Great by Choice,” by Jim Collins
  • “Leading Change,” by John Kotter
  • “Jack Welch & the G.E. Way,” by Robert Slater