What if true leaders aren’t either born or made, but rather initiated

The question whether leaders are born or made has raged for decades. But what if this is a dead-end and misleading question that – like most closed questions – not only limits, but actually disguises, the truth? What if effective leaders are actually ‘initiated’? What if leadership requires making a major life transition and is a life-long journey of adaptation?

In a world of unprecedented change, uncertainty, complexity, and spectacular leadership failures across business, communities and politics, these questions matter more than ever before.

When people say that leadership can be learned, they mistakenly think this learning relates to mere acquisition of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) – a list of the attributes required to perform a job and which help evaluate likely success in that job. While this applies to management, it doesn’t apply to leadership.

Developing leaders requires more than ‘knowing’ – acquiring new information by reading books, attending training programs, or completing an MBA.  It also requires more than ‘doing’ – acquiring new skills or competencies. Leadership development requires, above all, developing the individual’s character (‘being’).

Kevin Cashman, CEO at Korn Ferry, puts it nicely: “Competencies get us to the doorway of leadership, but character gets us through the doorway of leadership. Managers tend to control resources to get results, but leaders exert character to build a sustainable future.” But, how?

Initiation is an anthropological term that describes the rites societies use to transition individuals from adolescence to fully responsible members of society. The purpose of initiation is for individuals to experience a significant awareness about their identity, character and place in the world. Initiations are rites of passage that enable separations, transitions, and re-incorporations throughout critical life transitions. Such experiences become lessons which are never forgotten and bring about permanent life changes by altering the person’s being.

Warren Bennis (1925–2014), distinguished Professor of Business Administration and the founding Chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, and Robert Thomas, in their September 2002 Harvard Business Review article ‘Crucibles of Leadership’, explain that “one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from the most trying circumstances”. The empowerment resulting from overcoming such adversity is what makes great leaders. The crucible is a symbol for places or situations that force individuals to make tough decisions and to change.

Recently, in his article ‘Developing Leaders Through Adversity’, Manfred Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change explained the need to develop leaders with character – individuals who can deal with complex and challenging situations and can act as forces for good.

We begin to develop our character at an early age, and later in life by facing adversity and dealing with negative experiences (e.g. making costly mistakes, losing a job, missing a promotion, or losing a loved one). Such events help us to put things into perspective and, when dealt with effectively, build our resilience, ability to manage setbacks, and strengthen our character. Old identities are torn apart and new identities emerge. This allows boys and girls to psychologically die and become men and women (leaders). A new consciousness emerges – the essence of authentic leadership.  Initiations shape the leader’s identity, values, character, moral potency, and ethics.

Here are some examples of what great leaders have to say.

“My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” —Abraham Lincoln

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”—Nelson Mandela

It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” —Bill Gates

Don’t be afraid of failure.”—Steve Jobs

Leader development entails identifying strengths, developing creative thinking and learning agility, and building resilience by looking for and understanding life failures and disappointments. This process needs to be supported through professional coaching or mentoring.

Whether you are a corporate, political or community leader, attending to such development is a must if you want grow as a true leader. True leaders are neither born nor made; they are initiated!


Have you read?
Leadership Results: How to create adaptive leaders and high-performing organisations for an uncertain world. (Wiley & Sons)

Sebastian Salicru

Sebastian Salicru Verified account

Director at PTS Pty Ltd
Sebastian Salicru is a leadership development expert, researcher, and author of Leadership Results: How to Create Adaptive Leaders and High-performing Organisations for an Uncertain World (Wiley, 2017).

He is a business psychologist, Director of PTS Pty Ltd – a Sydney-based leadership consultancy, an Associate of Melbourne Business School – Executive Education, and Fellow of the Institute of Coaching (McLean/Harvard Medical School).

Sebastian has worked across sectors and industries with executives from some of the top Fortune Global 500 companies in Australia, USA, Europe, UAE, China and Singapore.
Sebastian Salicru

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