Are Leaders Born, Made – or Neither?

While reading Grant, Ron Chernow’s best selling biography of Ulysses S. Grant, I came across Amy Cunningham’s blog The Leadership Triangle, in which she asks if leaders are made, born or neither.

She suggests that we need to change our paradigm about leaders who, she claims, emerge more by context than either natural ability or training.

Ulysses Grant is an example.   Like Abraham Lincoln, who chose Grant as his senior general to lead the Union army to victory in the Civil War, he came from humble beginnings in frontier Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.   Neither Lincoln nor Grant had the formal education and elite influences of the first Presidents.   Both had their share of young life failures.

Grant, whom Chernow describes as the most popular man in America following the Civil War, was not a natural born leader nor did he have the training required for senior military service or the political experience to become, until then, the youngest President, elected for two terms.   Chernow believes he deserves more credit as a leader for uniting and preserving the Union while implementing the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction.

He seems to have had what Amy Cunningham describes as the Leadership Triangle of “competence, confidence, and commitment” to “ jump in with both feet because there is simply no other choice but to lead.”

Grant didn’t present himself as a war hero and never campaigned for the Presidency.   But he took charge when the times required it.

Near the end of his life, with help from Mark Twain he wrote what is still considered to be one the best presidential memoirs: interestingly enough recounting his war years without mention of his Presidency.

I concluded some years ago that the best leadership lessons are learned from biographies.   This is one of the best. Chernow helps us get acquainted with Grant as a devoted husband and father as well as a soldier and politician with all his flaws and disappointments.

While there is much to be said for talent and training, leadership happens when ordinary people are met with extraordinary circumstances.


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4 Responses to Are Leaders Born, Made – or Neither?

  1. Russ Long says:

    The question your blog raises intrigues me. Ever since reading Kellerman’s book, I have wondered about the significance of context and a leader’s effectiveness. I’ve watched pastors who have been very “successful” in one setting yet when they moved to another assignment they were unable to produce similar results. I have also watched some pretty ordinary people soar in a setting where everything in the context seemed to fall in their direction. It seems to me that the context in which leaders lead is increasingly challenging. My concern these days is the pressure leaders feel to produce results when the context does not lend itself to that reality. Discerning the difference between what I can or cannot control is challenging.

  2. Glen Gardner says:

    Thanks Tom. I am reading Chernow’s book presently. I find The Leadership Triangle very insightful when trying to understand why some became COK pastors and some did not. Always intriguing for me. Enjoy the blogs.

  3. Geoff DeFranca says:

    This was an encouraging post for me. It reminded me that leadership is a calling. Leonard Sweet’s “Summoned to Lead” comes to mind. A light went on for me as he challenged me to think not in terms of leadership as a product of my making (or anyone else’s) or of some natural gifting for it. Surely those are contributing factors. But the thought that leaders are “summoned” in the midst of and to their specific circumstances causes me to stay engaged in the leadership I am called to, even when the outward results may not be what I had expected or hoped for, or what others have. That does not mean the struggle of discernment (and discouragement) regarding that which is or is not within my control is not present. Very much so it is! But this thought of calling helps me remain committed to the task of leadership, even when the task seems discouraging, insurmountable and, in some eyes, like failure. I seek to remain “tethered” to the call.

  4. Larry Dennis says:

    Thanks Tom, one of your best. Always a challenge for those of us in mid-level management to see beyond the resume. ‘Truman’, by David McCullough, had a similar impact on me. Watching a sight impaired Missouri farm boy rise to the most influential office in the world while facing innumerable challenges with “competence, confidence, and commitment” continues to inspire me. Keep posting, we DS types need you.

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