Concept of leadership

‘Leaders are born’ and ‘Leadership skills can be developed’ represent two fundamentally different perspectives towards the development of leadership quality. Which perspective would you support, and what implications may this have for management development in organisations?


       The concept of leadership is as old as man himself. This is because ever since men came together for the purpose of achieving their different goals (communal, economic, political etc), there has always been the existence of a position for a leader/ leaders who would set the path towards the achievement of decided goals. This paper seeks to assume the position that leadership skills can be developed. One truth we know is that all leaders are born and when thrust with responsibilities performs with mixed results: some perform well; others perform woefully while others are able to balance the scales of performance. Upon the study of the various available literatures on leadership it was discovered that so many people have posited beautiful logical arguments for both sides of the divide. Nevertheless the question at hand demands that a position be assumed and supported and this is what i seek to do. The position of this paper is to logically argue against the notion of a breed of people born as leaders as those qualities are not inscribed on a man’s forehead but are developed through certain challenges which bring out those qualities which become evident to everyone. As would be highlighted in subsequent sub-topics the paper would attempt to make a point for is assumed position.

What is Leadership?

       Like many other concepts there are many definitions of leadership. Nevertheless they all assume that it involves the headship of any entity, organization, or group. Many scholars might argue back and forth about the philosophy of leadership, but the fact remains that the leader is the one who determines the path the group or entity would follow. Antonakis, Cianciolo and Sternberg (2004) agree with this point of view as they point out that it is a concept which is very easy to identify but difficult to define.Fieldler, cited in Antonakis et al (2004) also noted that there are many definitions of the concept as there are theorists and scholars working on the subject. John Maxwell, the author of the book “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” believes that leadership is nothing more than influence. Thus a leader to him is the person with the most influence among a group or within an entity. Northouse (2006) however argues that leadership is a diverse concept that might mean many things to different people. Nevertheless he assumes that there are common elements in all the definitions of leadership and he based his view on these common elements. To him, leadership is a systematic process whereby a person is able to influence other people to achieve common goals. Northouse posits that his definition is rooted in the following elements namely: process, influence, groups and common goals. Bryman (1986) is also in support of the position that the context in which the concept of leadership is applied varies from scholar to scholar. He also highlights that there have been ethical attempts by scholars to distinguish between leadership and other methods of influence like power and authority.

       Leadership is a concept that is present in every group or entity be it a school, church, business organization, state, association (local and international) etc. There are so many reasons why people emerge as leaders of the various groups they find themselves in. Some emerge by popular consent e.g. as found in a democratic state like the United States, others emerge by appointment e.g. the chief executive officer of an organization or business corporation. Others yet emerge as leaders via their possession or control of the means of coercion e.g. military leaders and dictators and in the business world boardroom politics and manipulation might see the emergence of a new head/ boss. Leadership is an essential feature of all entities that must be present as an entity without leadership might be brought down by internal and external instability. It is for this reason that scholars have taken time to study about leadership and the role it plays in achieving organizational goals. The recognition of it’s importance has given rise to the question of ethics in leadership and the dichotomy between good and bad leadership. Nevertheless it must be said on hand that the ethics of leadership is dependent on the position of the interested scholar. Thus while some scholars may concern themselves with leadership by consent, others may be more Machiavellian in nature. However this paper does not want to delve in to the ethics of the matter but rather wishes to pay attention to the question at hand.


Many scholars over the years have opined and debated on the various approaches to understanding the concept of leadership. This debate has spanned from the time of early philosophers like Plato down to modern theorist. According to literature there are a number of theories which helps one to understand the concept of leadership and these we shall take a note of briefly.

Seleshi Sissaye (2001) provides us with some of the well known theories namely

  1. Trait theory
  2. Functional theory
  3. Situational theory
Trait theory
According to Sissaye the trait theory can be seen as that which argues that leadership traits are acquired at birth. It is one of the earliest theories as it assumes the notion that some people have these traits while others lack it. It has however been criticized for it’s inconsistency although it later regained prominence in later years. Northouse (2009) also refers to it as the “great man” theory because it concerns itself with those qualities that made men great. He further noted that unlike other theories this one was focused on the nature of the leader and not the followers.
Functional Theory
Sissaye (2001) says that this theory came after the trait theory and it is an important one because it takes recognition of the role that leaders play in their environment. It was propounded by Parsons in 1951. Reisman in Sissaye further teaches that in this theory the leader actually serves three roles in his institution: facilitator, administrator and model.
Situational Theory
To Sissaye (2001), the situational theory came to replace both the functional and the trait theories of leadership. It is founded on the contingency theory of social organization. Hamilton in Sissaye postulates that the core of this theory is the argument that the nature of the job determines the emergence of the leader. In other words, a leader emerges based on the opportunities presented or on the circumstance he/ she find himself in. Northouse (2009) observed that that this type of leadership theory involved a directive and supportive dimension and these have to be applied when the occasion calls for it.
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Are Leaders Born?

       This is an interesting question. It is one because it attempts to understand the notion that leaders are a special breed of people who come into the world to fulfil their role of leadership. Thus it bears an element of destiny in it. Roger Gill (2006) noted that scholars and philosophers have debated this position over the years like Shakespeare and Aristotle. However many scholars of the modern period have also argued this position on the grounds that there is an innate characteristic in certain individuals which might be highlighted or can be moulded to attain the desired level of leadership characteristics. Indeed Nicholson and Norburn in Gill assume the position that there are innate genetic cells in individuals which may be developed to the desired standard. To them since all people are not leaders it is only reasonable to assume that the leaders have a certain leadership trait that has placed them in that position. This argument is also supported by Kilpatrick and Locke in Torrington, Hall and Taylor (2008). They also believe that leaders possess certain genetical leadership traits such as drive, motivation and self confidence which make it easier for them to perform well in leadership positions. The truth is that all leaders are biologically born. They are all products of the biological reactions which bring forth everyone- leaders as well as followers. There is nothing extraordinary about the birth of leaders because so many factors are involved in the emergence of a leader and it is these factors if favourable to the leader’s success that might lend some validity to this statement. This notion makes one to question the existence of the followers. If leaders are born and developed from the womb to be leaders, then are followers already predetermined to become followers from birth? Finzel (2007) proposes that real leaders aren’t born but learn by trial and error and that inability to learn good leadership habits might haunt a generation of subsequent leaders. Cohen (1999) makes an interesting point that there are so many people who are educated and have good qualifications but this does not naturally endow them to lead. Rather than support the claim this paper wishes to disapprove of this philosophy that leaders are born not made and that leadership skills can be developed.

Leaders and their skills are developed

       Leadership Development according to McCauley, cited in Day (2001) involves the collective expansion of organizational members to involve themselves in leadership roles and processes. The fact is that all human beings are born with various traits talent and skills: psychological and physical. Leadership should however not be viewed in this light. This is because unlike genetical traits like eye colour, lip colour, looks etc, leadership is a combination of opportunity and ability. Leadership traits as argued by scholars of the trait school are not as evident as those physical traits which individuals are known to exhibit. Thus we might say that all individuals are born with leadership skills all of which are not made manifest, rather their skills are honed and sharpened through the various challenges they face and opportunities presented to them. His/ her ability to head a group visibly confers on him the status of leader (although in some cases the visible head might not be the real leader e.g. as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru in India. In management circles a leader is identified through his ability to handle different difficult situations put in his charge. These opportunities are presented to identify key areas of strength and weakness and this gives people the chance to weigh and determine the kind of leader they want at the top. Lenore Mewton (2009) in her paper argues this position by admitting that although it is very possible for individuals to possess traits and qualities which equip them for positions of leadership, it can also be learned and developed from executives and other business practitioners as their experience helps shape and individual’s decision making processes. She believes that for a leader to be prepared he must assume leadership of himself of self leadership and proposes that individuals must be conscious and aware of their qualities and abilities as this allows them to decide on which to employ while taking decisions in leadership position.

       Let’s take a closer look at this position. Leadership development might start from any point in an individual’s life. Factors such as the environment and the individual a leader comes in contact with also shape the way his leadership abilities are developed. An individual who attends school, goes to church or mosque and develops through life might remain a follower unless given such positions that bring out such leadership qualities in him. It is for this reason why many institutions such as businesses, governments, non-governmental organizations etc spend lots of money engaging their staff in various leadership courses within and outside state boundaries. For instance in institutions such as the military, soldiers rise through the ranks and are given positions of command. Their success in handling these various assignment given to them determines how the move up the military hierarchy. This view is in agreement with the opinion of Lussier and Achua (2009) who argue also that most of the world’s major corporations spend millions of dollars on various leadership seminars and training programs around the world. They further posit that irrespective of an individual’s talents, he/she could be developed to lead if given a chance or provided an opportunity.

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       In trying to justify the position of this paper the argument would rely greatly on the opinions of the development theorists. This is because many of the popular businesses in the world today depend on leaders that are developed through their ability to handle various challenges presented to them. The modern business environment is such that the only leaders that are recognized are those who have risen through the ranks and have had their abilities tested and developed through the various programs, seminars and leadership programs they have found themselves in which has brought out those leadership qualities in them. The next sub heading would try to look at how leadership skills are developed in an organizational context.

Leadership Skills Development in an Organization

       How are leadership skills developed in organizations? What are the processes? What does it entail? Do the beneficiaries of such processes end up becoming good leaders? These are some of the questions that this sub heading hopes to answer in a brief yet concise way. Many organizations have many ways of ensuring that leadership skills of her staff are harnessed to the fullest. Many of the popular corporate names like General Motors, General Electric, IBM, Procter and Gamble etc have a culture of developing their staff to bring out the leadership skills in their staff. This was further confirmed in a Fortune Magazine online article of the “World best companies for leaders” which saw those companies listed earlier as examples as part of the top ten. A look through the list of companies and their profiles show that the companies all have various strategies and methods for identifying and developing managerial talents into the kind of leaders that would benefit the corporate world. For instance in Procter and Gamble top executives also participate in training staff at the company’s leadership colleges, while at IBM mobility assignments are given to thousands of staff spanning from a range of three to six months. At Titan Cement, which also made the Fortune list, their own leadership program also includes a one year program known as the “career pre heater”, as well as a value system for evaluating people thereby identifying leadership material through their performance.

       Why do companies take the effort to develop the leadership skills of their staff? A personal opinion might be that companies prepare to advance to the next phase of growth by preparing their staff and developing their leadership skills so as to ensure that the business has a viable leadership to steer them through to that next phase of growth. A lot of the major corporations try to satisfy their leadership needs internally by developing special leadership programs for their “leadership talents” or high performing managers. For instance Hewlett Packard or HP for short, the PC and InfoTech Company based in the US according to Carter, Ulrich and Goldsmith (2005) through their Workforce Development and Organizational Effectiveness Group developed a program called Dynamic Leadership; a program which according to HP was to improve decision making and leadership amongst other objectives set by the then CEO Carly Fiorina. The end product of this program was after a study and analysis of the process was that they benefitted financially over the long term after evaluation of various processes as well as successfully merging with another PC company-Compaq. A lot of the big corporations also have a similar pattern for identifying and filling leadership gaps within the organization. Other big corporations that have implemented a similar model to that of HP include Macdonald’s Corporation, Intel, Lockheed Martin etc. Macdonald’s Corporation for instance is one of the biggest fast food ventures in the world. In 2001 it’s HR Design Centre created a program for it’s key managerial staff called the Macdonald’s Leadership Development Experience. This program was specifically designed to bring out leadership qualities of staff that would go on to occupy a key position within the Macdonald hierarchy namely the position of Regional Manager. The candidates undertook training and the scholars, Ulrich et al considered the training process good enough to bring out the leadership qualities in these candidates. However many people are developed through structural positions of leadership. Thus their ability to head a position determines if they have the Capacity to handle people and resources on a larger scale.

       Day (2001,a) however notes that there are other methods by which companies develop their potential leaders. Some of the examples given include the 360 – degree feedback, which involves the collection of different points of view of an individual’s performance, as well as mentoring, which Day defines as “formal developmental relationships” while performing duties on the job. McCauley and Brutus (1998) identify with Job Assignments as an important tool in training potential leaders and Day (2001, b) notes that this has been employed by Businesses like the Coca Cola Company.


What are the implications of leadership development in organizations? How does management benefit from the leadership skills development that many organizations are now focusing on? It must be said that a lot of companies in the world today are investing in leadership development because they are aware of the benefits that come with good leadership in business. This is what Mullins (2007) believes, that businesses identify people who would be beneficial to the company’s management in the long term. If we borrow from the resource based view of HRM we would understand that leadership skills constitute part of the resources which give a company competitive advantage against rival businesses. Shajahan (2007) is also of the opinion that leadership programs directed at skill development serve as a source of competitive advantage. Some implications which i personally identified include the following namely:

  • Continuity
  • Smooth flow of Communication
  • Identification of the right leaders for the business.
  • Continuity: One of the reasons why companies undertake leadership skills program is to ensure continuity of leadership. Thus businesses undertake different strategies of leadership skills development to ensure that there is continuity in the business. This is because only good leaders have the foresight to keep a company going through to the next phase of growth. As Shajahan (2007) noted in the example of General Electric (GE), while it’s iconic C.E.O, Jack Welch, was preparing to retire in 2001, executives where being recruited to report to the potential successors of Welch. Thus Shajahan’s point is that companies concerned with leadership do not wait until the last minute to get a leader. They rather start the process early enough and continue till the process till whenever the process becomes unnecessary.
  • Smooth flow of Communication: Leadership Skills development allows for a smooth flow of communication between potential leaders and other staff. This is because staffs that are trained under these leadership development schemes are knowledgeable of the internal workings of the organization as well as the people who bring about these workings and functions i.e. the staff. Thus it is easier for them to communicate and pass down directives because of their knowledge of the system and familiarity with those that operate the system. This can be seen in companies that recruit their management staff internally.
  • Identification of Right leaders for the business: This is also similar with the first point but is also unique in it’s nature. Leadership development is a process which highlights the leadership potential of all participants involved in the development program. As a result such programs do not only provide leadership options in times of succession and continuity but also provide options for those who would take charge of key areas of business. Such people might mature over time to take over the leadership mantle if need be as such key positions handled by these persons constitute part of their leadership training process. Others might not assume leadership positions in that company but might be suitable and well qualified for like positions in other companies.
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           There are other key implications of leadership skills development which are crucial to management success in an organization. Nevertheless it can be seen that it is a process that is very good in bringing out that part of individuals which is usually hidden unless identified and sharpened to suit the objectives and mission of the organization.


           Although i have taken the position that leadership skills can be developed, there are still some criticisms that linger over it and much of it come from the philosophical school of thought that leadership qualities are in born, a position adopted by the trait school of leadership theory. These scholars have made some reasonable points that are worthy of consideration and analysis.

           According to Gill (2006), the argument about leaders being born or made started with Hippocrates description of personality types based on body humour. In his book, Gill argues the point that this position is a psychological one, which makes it important because it’s concerns are crucial to the success and making of a leader. Such psychological concerns include interpersonal, psychological and emotional concerns. One of the major flaws of the leadership development position thus is that it downplays the importance of psychology in leadership. Although it can be argued that leaders are developed over time to suit their roles, one must not ignore the fact that leaders also have certain qualities that identify them as natural born leaders. For instance Northouse in Gill (2006) identified in his analysis certain trait qualities associated with leadership namely integrity, dominance, self confidence and sociability. Judge in Gill (2006) also identified some more characteristics which could be identified with leaders namely agreeableness, extraversion and conscientiousness. This view is also upheld by Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) who argue that leaders possess those special traits which push them further to develop those identified traits. They make use of examples of personal characteristics of some leaders like Sam Walton of Wal-Mart and John Paul Jones of the US Navy to drive home their point of the relationship between trait and leadership. Nevertheless it must be noted that although possession of leadership traits is a factor, it does not determine the success of a leader.

           Another criticism noted with this leadership development position is that the fact that leadership skills which are developed through certain training schemes either formal or informal does not guarantee the success of a leader. Skills development does not uniquely give leaders a successful tenure in their organization just as traits alone does not explain leadership success.


           This paper has briefly reviewed the concept of leadership and has seen that leadership although identifiable cannot be given an encompassing definition. Many people see leadership in different lights; influence, management, control, power etc and as a result it cannot be given a wholesome definition to embrace all these points of view. The theories surrounding the concept of leadership have also been briefly reviewed as it is the opinion of this paper that these theories have a great influence on the question of concern. The two points of opinion: “leaders are born” and “leadership skills can be developed “have also been reviewed in a bid to provide a bit of understanding on the debate. While this paper has adopted the position of leadership development, it nevertheless has sought to point out that any of the positions is subject to the beliefs and opinions of the individual as there is no universally acceptable position on the subject of leadership. One might be forced to make the conclusion that an argument like this is more of a philosophical question and with leaders coming up in different sectors and carrying out their duties in different ways there is no clear superior argument as both positions have considerable weight. Nevertheless the position of this paper still stands: that leadership skill can be honed and sharpened to suit and lead a people in a particular way. This stands because people have certain qualities that could be shaped to be of better use to the larger society, community, organization or country.

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