Are leaders born or grown?

Leaders – Born or Grown

A few years ago I found myself in a conference room just outside Durban, South Africa listening to a most unassuming, yet powerful talent developer.  Martin Dreyer is his name, and unless you follow the Dusi you are unlikely to have heard of him; I certainly hadn’t.


For those of you who know neither Martin or the Dusi here’s a little background: The Dusi is an endurance (which in South Africa really means something) 75mile marathon canoe race held over three days between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa.  Martin’s initial claim to Dusi fame was winning it 6 times – which as he said was the greatest achievement of his life.

Setting the challenge of Talent Development

Not one to rest on his previous achievements, he then set himself the challenge of coaching the first all-black team to win the Dusi.  In the context of developing talent, this is where his story really got interesting.

Back in 2008 there were not that many black participants to work with – Michael was an exception rather than the norm.  To find his talent Martin needed to reach out to non-sporting black communities; to literally spot potential talent without any track record or form to study.  In fact, in some of the communities he was not at all welcome, with more than one family unhappy at their son being distracted by non-productive sport.

Identifying the Talent Pool

Eventually he had gathered enough young men to believe he could find some winners.  He described them as being of varied experience; some had lots of enthusiasm but little practice at running & paddling.  Others were more confident runners – some even had trainers. Once he had identified a pool of potential talent he came up with an ingenious method of assessing them.  It’s worth noting that although the Dusi is a canoe race there is also a fair amount of running involved to avoid dangerous sections of river.

To assess his talent pool Martin got them to commit to a 4 week programme of running/paddling training.  At the end of each week they would each be timed running/paddling over a predetermined course.  At the end of the 4 weeks he would pick 10 youngsters he would work with for the following months to prepare them for the next year’s Dusi.  If he picked the wrong people at this stage, he would end up investing a lot of effort for nothing.

Everyone developed, but by how much?

Everyone’s times improved, but not all at the same rate.  What was interesting is that some of the boys who were fastest at the start of the training period only achieved marginal improvements.  By contrast, some of the candidates who seemed to be less likely to succeed really improved significantly.  At the end of the four weeks Martin found himself staring at figures and graphs and facing a genuine dilemma.  “Do I choose the fastest or the most improved?”

When he made his final selection more than a few of the candidates were surprised.  Why weren’t they chosen?  They were the fastest.  They had always been the fastest.  Martin had decided to work with those that were most willing to invest in themselves.


And what’s that go to do with leadership?

Whenever I get asked are leaders born or made, I reflect on this story.  We are all born with characteristics which give us a natural advantage when faced with a corresponding challenge or opportunity.   In the world of sports with its physical challenges certain physiques will unsurprisingly produce natural advantage.

However, this is just an entry ticket.  Like the runner/paddlers in Martin’s mountain communities, they had taken their personal attributes and harnessed them; they knew they were the fastest athlete in town.

Some of the young men who had not been so fast however, were open to the coaching and development Martin provided.  They sought to improve themselves.  They focused on their goals and did whatever they needed to move towards them.  They demonstrated the greatest improvement and the appetite for continued growth.  The subsequent choice as to who had the greatest potential was easy.

Some people are born with personality traits that make taking a leadership positon easy and natural.  They find themselves readily promoted into management positions and move easily up the management hierarchy and you end up with the Peter Principle.  Like the runner/paddlers, by not paying attention to the need to change and improve they suddenly stall or worse still derail.  Getting promoted into roles where leadership is needed and not having developed that capability.

Leaders need to be conscious of their impact

To be effective in today’s VUCA world leaders need to work hard to understand what their environment needs and how to align the skills and motivations of their people to meaningful goals.  They need to be conscious of their impact and take responsibility for ensuring it is effective. They never stop trying to improve.

By the way, Martin’s team’s success was staggering – they took 10 of the top 36 places! Once more, Martin claimed this as the greatest achievement of his life. What’s obvious from this is that his achievements went from being personal successes to success through others and then on to collective success.

Written by Scott Chambers, Renowned Management and Leadership Consultant and Managing Director of 3gHR