Born or made? Wrong question. Relevant leaders are increasingly self-made

“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

– William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 


Remember those 20th Century debates we had about whether leaders were born or made?

Today, they seem sort of quaint and frankly, out of touch.  Back then, we agreed that leaders could be born or made. We were also familiar with the American ideal of the “self-made”—our society still loves stories about determined bootstrappers who came from nothing and accumulated a ton of dough, a lofty title, or both. But let’s be clear. We were never really talking about something we need more than ever today: self-made leaders. Instead we were talking about self-made billionaires, self-made entrepreneurs, self-made CEOs, self-made NBA and NFL all-stars.

People still go from nothing to something out of nowhere, even overnight. Take Mark Zuckerberg, whose Wikipedia blurb identified him as the “world’s second youngest self-made (my italics) billionaire” in 2012. Zuckerberg is also a self-made innovator. As a college kid, he invented one of the most compelling capabilities of our new century, not to mention the world’s most valuable social network. Still, writing about the 2010 movie The Social Network, The New York Times columnist David Brooks took “the character loosely based on Mark Zuckerberg” to task for being “without social and moral skills” largely because he was a product of a “culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct.”

More recently, the real Zuckerberg is making headlines for what by all accounts appears to be an authentic journey toward becoming the type of leader our companies and world so desperately need. As some detractors called for Zuckerberg to step aside when Facebook’s new stock faltered in 2012, he gave a public interview re-committing to running a “mission-based company”; asserted that his number one priority is Facebook’s “great team”, one inspired by “building something that’s worthwhile.” Early in 2013, the Employees’ Choice Awards named Facebook the #1 Best Company to Work for in 2013. The latest headlines about Zuckerberg’s leadership focus on his social convictions, as he forms an advocacy group addressing education, immigration, and other large-scale economic issues, and as he supports colleague Sheryl Sandberg’s important “Lean in” initiative. It feels fair to say that we are witnessing a gifted person “self-making” his leadership with the kind of deliberateness Aristotle had in mind in the 4th Century BC when he said of social and moral excellence that such “excellence is not a single act, but a habit.”

Zuckerberg undoubtedly recognises that he is leading in a culture and world that is rapidly being reshaped. Because our global and business problems are so daunting and complex, we need all leaders— from billionaires and all-stars to the latest YouTube sensation— to similarly recognise and move beyond talk of social and moral conduct, to behave and even compete with it.

While power and authority remain key components of leadership, their very nature is changing dramatically due to the interconnected and interdependent nature of our world.   Since we all have more influence and access to power than ever before, power can no longer be effectively wielded over people. That’s because its source is shifting to moral authority rather that titular or inherited authority. We no longer automatically heed someone’s directive or request because they are CEO or because their father and grandfather were rulers; we respond to leaders because we trust in their character, values and behaviours. As a result, effective 21st Century leaders wield their power through people and networks. They connect and collaborate instead of command and control.

Today, almost anyone can become a leader (a far cry from our previous centuries when power was lorded over people and depended on leverage). Today, so long as one exercises the right kind of authority through the right people and networks, one can transform into a global leader almost instantly, regardless of where they are in the world, thanks to our always-on network connectivity. Look at the vegetable vendor in Tunisia who sparked a revolution toward freedom throughout the Middle East. Or look at Martha Payne, the 9-year-old schoolgirl in Scotland who gained thousands of social media followers by blogging about school lunches and then leveraging her network to not only improve the food at her school but also to raise thousands of dollars to feed hungry children in Malawi.

Here’s the good news: the type of leadership we need today can be developed by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Again, I’m talking about moral leaders – not about billionaires, inventors, C-level titles or league scoring champs. Self-made leaders develop a sustained ability to contribute their character and creativity in the service of getting other people to collaborate and unleash their own character and creativity in the service of vision inspired by shared purpose and values.

Self-made leaders recognize and respond to fundamental forces driving business and the world today; they seek to understand business’ interconnected and morally interdependent nature, and then develop leadership muscles and habits that align with and leverage these forces. This leads to an important new question: How we can make, or re-make, ourselves into leaders whose power stems from moral authority rather than formal authority? The following can help leaders get started on an answer:

Conduct a moral audit

Leaders and their organisations have long conducted financial audits and operational audits. Today, we need moral audits: What do you stand for? Why do you get out of bed every day? What does your company stand for? How do you derive meaning from your life and work? And to what extent do those answers reconcile and resonate with your and your employees’ daily activities? When these audits expose gaps between our individual (and/or corporate) characters and our actual behaviour or performance, we need to go to the social and moral gym. There, we need to develop and strengthen new leadership muscles, including empathy, humility, rigor about the truth, and consistency, as well as some traditional muscles, like courage and resiliency.

Look into the two-way mirror

Moral audits are an ongoing process; and in today’s increasingly and irreversibly transparent business environment, moral audits are a two-way process. When CEOs, their employees and companies look into the mirror, they should recognise that the mirror is transparent: any and every stakeholder can easily look deeply into their characters and the characters of their organisations, and can then easily tweet or blog about it for all others to see. This hyper-transparency has greatly elevated the value of authentic, consistent leadership. Principled behaviour, regardless of how tough or inconvenient, breeds consistency. And authenticity requires that we forge and nurture meaningful connections with others: customers, trading partners, governments and citizens.

Elevate meaningful connections over ‘family’ or institutional connections:

The days of leadership as a birth right are fading, especially in the developed world. Since the 1960s, the proportion of federal legislators with relatives in U.S. Congress has significantly decreased, according to University of California-Berkeley research. When Arne Sorenson was appointed CEO of Marriott International in March 2012, it marked the first time in nearly all of the company’s eight-decade history that a Marriott was not in the chief executive’s office. “Arne Sorenson is as much a member of our family as everyone else,” Marriott Executive Chairman and former CEO Bill Marriott recently blogged (yes, a chairman of the board, even one who is 80, can blog). “I’ve always considered each and every one of our associates part of our family.” Marriott stresses that while each of his roughly 1,30,000 employees enters the organisation in their own unique fashion, almost all of them, from Silver Springs to Sri Lanka, tell him that they were born to work in the hospitality industry. As a leader, Marriott has shown that he believes it is his job to communicate and lead in a way that allows them to fulfil their self-made birth rights.

Extend trust

Old-school leaders expected their trust to be earned by others; 21st century leaders extend their trust to inspire greater collaboration, commitment and innovation among employees and other business partners. Stanford University scholar Francis Fukuyama’s research indicates that family-run businesses are more prevalent in developing countries where the rule of law is weak and, as a result, trust is in short supply. After all, most of us trust our family members. Leaders need to thoughtfully extend more trust to more stakeholders. That means, among many other outcomes, providing the freedom for employees to take the right kinds of risks (those that lead to new business processes, products and services) rather than telling them to innovate while simultaneously shackling them with outdated policies and procedures.

Accept, even embrace, vulnerability

More and more current business leaders are coming to a similar realisation: we know we need to search for new structures and habits that cultivate and foster shared values and inspire a commitment to significance. That’s the only way we can exert our leadership authority through our people. This realisation may generate insecurity and confusion in the short run. But we must courageously move beyond our conventional practice of using only carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, rules and policies to extract performance out of people in task-based jobs. Instead, we should experiment with extending trust, connecting and collaborating around a values-based mission that inspires principled performance and hope in people.

This “self-making” endeavour requires tough work, and it requires that we undertake an ongoing journey. After all, if we don’t self-make or re-make our leadership approach, we won’t succeed, and many of us will be out of a job, supplanted by others who are more attuned to our new sources of advantage.

Dov Seidman is the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of LRN, the global leader in ethics and compliance management. This article was previously published on

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