Leaders Are Made, Not Born


How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders

By Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas

Harvard Business School -- 224pp -- $26.95

Having just turned 50, I've suddenly found myself wondering how I got here so fast. Maybe you know the feeling. In your heart, you're still 18, then you peer into the mirror and wonder: Who in the world is that gray-haired person staring back?

But I have no regrets about falling between the cracks of the latest leadership research, found in Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders by leadership guru Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas. This book looks at two categories of people I'm not: Geeks, who, as the authors define them, came of age between 1991 and 2000, grew up "virtual, visual, and digital." Geezers, whose formative period was 1945 to 1954, were shaped by World War II.

The idea behind this new research is simple: All of us come of age in a particular milieu that shapes us. "Our era determines choices both mundane and profound, from the music we prefer to the things that we long for, the things we take for granted, and much of the emotional coloration of our lives," the authors write.

During the dot-com era, the differences between young and old seemed as stark as the contrast between the music of Dave Matthews and Glenn Miller. The digital set was said to be far more ambitious than were the analog set at the same age. Geeks aspired to "change the world" and "make history" rather than merely make a living.

The authors conducted extensive interviews with 43 subjects, ranging from former Securities & Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. (a geezer, of course) to Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp (among 18 geeks). They discovered that there were more similarities among these leaders than differences. The core essentials of leadership remain constant across generations. More important, the study yielded an unexpected result: a theory that describes how leaders come to be, in whatever era, and that predicts who is likely to become and remain a leader.

Leadership is hardly a new area of research, of course. For years, academics have debated whether leaders are born or made, whether a person who lacks charisma can become a leader, and what makes leaders fail. Bennis, possibly the world's foremost expert on leading, has written two best-sellers on the topic. Generally, researchers have found that you can't explain leadership by way of intelligence, birth order, family wealth or stability, level of education, ethnicity, race, or gender. From one leader to the next, there's enormous variance in every one of those factors.

The authors' research led to a new and telling discovery: that every leader, regardless of age, had undergone at least one intense, transformational experience--what the authors call a "crucible." These events can either make you or break you. For emerging leaders, they do more making than breaking, providing key lessons to help a person move ahead confidently.

For example, "Geezer" Sidney Rittenberg, whose consulting firm pioneered business ties between the U.S. and China, was jailed as a spy in China in 1949 and spent 16 years in prison, the first in solitary confinement and total darkness. He emerged certain that nothing in professional life could break him.

A crucible need not be harsh or tragic. Video-game expert Geoffrey Keighley's crucible was, by contrast, modest. In second grade, this "geek" converted a microwave oven into a magician's table, put on a top hat, and mesmerized friends with a magic trick. The wonder and awe in the eyes of the other kids filled him with a sense of power and uniqueness that Keighley later drew upon to create a video-industry Web site called GameSlice. He is considered the leading reviewer in the field.

If a crucible helps a person to become a leader, there are four essential qualities that allow someone to remain one, according to the authors. They are: an "adaptive capacity" that lets people not only survive inevitable setbacks, heartbreaks, and difficulties but also learn from them; an ability to engage others through shared meaning or a common vision; a distinctive and compelling voice that communicates one's conviction and desire to do the right thing; and a sense of integrity that allows a leader to distinguish between good and evil.

Sounds obvious enough to be trite, until you look at some recent failures that show how valid these dictums are. The authors believe that former Coca-Cola Co. (KO ) Chairman M. Douglas Ivester lasted just 28 months because "his grasp of context was woeful." Among other things, Ivester demoted Coke's highest-ranking African-American even as the company was losing a $200 million class action brought by black employees. Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) ex-CEO Durk Jager lost his job because he failed to communicate the urgent need for the sweeping changes he was making. He flunked at engaging the people of P&G. These are important lessons in a fascinating book.

It's striking, too, that the authors found their geezers sharing what they believed to be a critical trait--the sense of possibility and wonder more often associated with childhood. "Unlike those defeated by time and age, our geezers have remained much like our geeks--open, willing to take risks, hungry for knowledge and experience, courageous, [and] eager to see what the new day brings," the authors write.

As a newly 50-year-old guy, that strikes me as a recipe for a successful life, whether you're a leader or not.

By John A. Byrne

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