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Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Can leaders learn to lead?

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Dr. Donna L. Roberts
Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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It’s an oft-repeated and oft-debated question in many fields – Are good leaders born or made?

One argument focuses on depicting the characteristic distinction between a manager and a leader. Warren Bennis, a Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of Southern California and a long-time Harvard Busines Review contributor, adamantly argues that there are basic core differences including, motivation, personal history and the manner in which the individual thinks and acts, which clearly separate leaders from mangers (1995).

In distinguishing leaders from managers Bennis firmly establishes the following contrasts:

  • Managers tend to adopt impersonal, passive attitudes towards company goals while leaders actively embrace them and inject their personal passion into their pursuit.
  • Managers view their work as an enabling process which molds people, resources and ideas into a whole which moves toward a static goal. Leaders are more concerned with ideas and the people generating them. They are predisposed to work from high-risk orientations, especially when they sense extraordinary reward and opportunity.
  • Managers prefer to work with people from an organizationally conferred role position as a level in a hierarchy or a link in the decision-making chain. Leaders relate to people in a more flexible, intuitive and empathic way.

Additionally, the author identifies the following multifaceted factors involved in developing a great leader: (1) traits associated with leaders; (2) behaviors exhibited by leaders; (3) situations in which leaders find themselves and (4) attributions of others in close proximity to the leader.

While the definition of an effective leader is elusive, enigmatic and variable depending upon the context, it is important to attempt to formulate a construct which identifies the underlying characteristics, attributes and courses of action which begin to depict successful leadership. Quality leadership is absolutely imperative to the success of the institutions which shape our lives and our futures. Therefore, understanding leaders and leadership is essential in order to foster its development. Too often the concept of leadership is reduced to the bare mechanical components and linear techniques of people and product management. True leaders are neither born nor made but rather evolve and develop by nurturing the combination of variables outlined in this article.

Bennis’s views are relatively consistent with the current literature. The conclusion that a leader is more than an efficient manger is a commonly repeated popular theme. Many business theorists have contemplated the question of what magic formula yields an effective leader. The answer seems to lie, as indicated in this article, in the synergistic combination of traits, behaviors, situations and characteristics of followers.

This article has direct implications for the content of leadership development programs as well as for the reconsideration of the roles of existing managers/leaders. Specifically, if leaders, rather than managers will successfully carry the organization into the future, then how does an organization foster the development of leaders and how do training programs effectively identify and/or teach those skills identified as necessary differences?


Bennis, W. (July-August 1995). The unconscious conspiracy: Why leaders can’t learn to lead. Harvard Business Review, pp. 49-61.

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