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Is Leadership Inherent or Learned?

Leadership General Petraeus

From the moment we have the ability to consciously make choices, we start displaying some of the traits we can characterize as leadership. For example, even the newest of our kind, too tiny to walk, roll over, or even open their eyes, will begin to demonstrate the need to connect, influence, and participate in their own destiny — albeit they use coos and cries, not what we usually ascribe as leadership traits or actions (at least in most instances!). Later on, as toddlers, children begin to showcase more sophisticated behaviors that can be characterized as leadership. For example, some toddlers take the reins of their environment more easily and start to take noticeable initiative, usually manifesting in words like no and no and no…no. It is so cute at first…then it isn’t.

Of course, seeing leadership characteristics in others (whether they be children or centurions) presupposes that we know what leadership is or at least what it looks like. Unfortunately, that is where the leadership construct gets messy. In other words, questions such as, “What is leadership?” “How does leadership work?” “What does leadership look like?” and “How can I get more of it?” begin to surface.

I have in my computer a folder in which I collect definitions of leadership from all sorts of domains. I currently have more than 75 definitions compiled. They are from different contexts, cultures, and times. One of my favorites is from Harry Truman, who defined leadership as “a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do, or do what they’re too lazy to do, and like it.” Gender issues aside (but only for a moment), this is a common theme found in perspectives on leadership: using persuasion to create cooperation in executing plans serving some goal. However, let me suggest that more lofty ideas of leadership — while appealing to our new-age and common hope for a better society — are not facts; they are just other concepts that have a tendency to be larger than life and something to be looked into when we are in a better position or situation. Not “now,” in other words. They don’t seem real for us. Possible, yes, but not probable. For example, J. C. Rost defined leadership as “…great men and women with certain preferred traits that influence followers to do what the leaders wish in order to achieve group or organizational goals that reflect excellence defined as some kind of higher order effectiveness.” We might think after reading this definition that leadership is for great men and women, doing grand things for grand purposes. In some cases, this is true, but I think we can sell ourselves short by not framing leadership as something we can do right now. Leadership IS right now.

Leadership is something we do every day of our lives, in every situation, no matter when or where the opportunities present themselves — because leadership is a choice. It is a choice to be present to your life and your situation and to engage with it on a real-time basis. It is not a concept to dream about or wish for “someday” but a fact of our daily life that can be lived from moment to moment. Leaders are people who engage their day and the people in their lives with the mindset that no matter what the situation, they will meet it head on and do their best to act, communicate, and inspire those they touch and influence.

Leaders are mothers, fathers, bosses, students, rich people, poor people, black people, white people, green people…leaders are everyone. The execution of leadership is personal, intimate, and real, and when we see it in ourselves and others, we are in awe of its power. Start today to engage and quit giving over your life and choices to others with more so-called intelligence, position, money, opportunity, education, etc. Leadership opportunities are right now, this very moment, so start from where you are not where you need to be to start.