The Myth of the Natural Born Leader

Sure, some individuals may more openly display the characteristics we tend to associate with leaders, but research shows that “leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices . . . it’s a process ordinary people use when they’re bringing forth the best from themselves and others.”

Grace Malone Ewell

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2022

There is no such thing as a natural born leader.

I’ll say it again for the people in the back.

There is no such thing as a natural born leader.

Sure, some individuals may more openly display the characteristics we tend to associate with leaders, but research shows that “leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices . . . it’s a process ordinary people use when they’re bringing forth the best from themselves and others.” [1] If you don’t believe the experts, believe me, because I’ve experienced it.

During my 1L year here at UT Law, I took the VIA Character Strengths survey. The survey is a self-assessment that provides respondents with a ranking of 24 character strengths. Notably, everyone possesses all 24 character strengths, one of which is leadership, in varying degrees. Ergo, the best kept secret: everyone has the capacity for leadership.

A person’s top five character strengths identified in the VIA Character Strengths survey tend to remain static throughout life. During my 1L year, however, leadership was ranked 14th on my list of character strengths. Today, as a 3L, leadership is one of my signature character strengths, second only to love of learning.

So, how did this happen? Importantly, exercising leadership does not require a traditional leader role. Instead, I like to think of leadership as a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more powerful it becomes.

Prior to entering law school, I always had wanted to be a leader in the traditional sense. I ran for nearly every organizational leadership position possible: middle school student council president, high school class president, various undergraduate organization positions, and president of my undergraduate professional business fraternity (twice). What did these campaigns for leadership positions all have in common? I lost. I lost each and every one. Naturally, consistently being denied the ability to exercise that leadership muscle causes it to weaken. I became concerned that without a corresponding position of power to validate my leadership, I couldn’t be a leader at all. These failures make us believe that because others don’t see us as a leader, so we shouldn’t see ourselves that way either.

Law school and the COVID pandemic, however, thrusted me into various leadership roles, culminating in my election as the President of the Student Bar Association. Suddenly, I felt that I was given permission to view myself as a leader. This position, in turn, gave me the confidence to continue to exercise my leadership skills and look for opportunities to push myself to learn and apply principles of leadership in my everyday life. Leadership became one of my key strengths, in large part, because I worked to make it so.

What is the point of all this rambling, you might ask? I would argue that successful leaders aren’t born as such. Rather, the trait most leaders share is grit. Angela Duckworth, a renowned researcher on grit, defines the term as “sustained perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Those of us who aren’t so called “born leaders” oftentimes are born with, or can develop, the determination and grit to become what I call “learned leaders.”

“Learned leaders” are characterized by a high tolerance of failure and the initiative to attempt to display leadership and learn from others. One of the most helpful tools I have found to develop my own leadership skills is to ask for candid feedback from peers. This exercise not only allows you to get valuable information to apply to your development, but also the opportunity to accept criticism and turn a negative review into a positive result. The news is rarely all negative, however. Garnering feedback can be a uniquely uplifting experience as you receive positive feedback of yourself through the eyes of others. Through these sessions, you may find out something unexpected and new that others see and appreciate in you. This self-awareness allows you to recognize and own those strengths and skills and harness them for use in your leadership journey.

My advice to you? Don’t count yourself out before you have even allowed yourself to enter the game. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you simply do not have what it takes to be a leader. Just as a person has the ability to strengthen a muscle through physical exercise, everyone has the ability to become a stronger leader with a little legwork (pun intended). Seek out opportunities to develop your leadership strength, believe in yourself, and the rest will follow.

[1] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s