Are leaders born or bred?  A Perspective from an Organisational Development Expert

Are leaders born or bred?  A Perspective from an Organisational Development Expert

Memory Nguwi caught up with one of the leading Organisation Development Experts from the USA and explored what makes a leader. Gilmore Crosby is the President at Crosby & Associates – Leadership and Organisation Development Experts

MN: What is leadership?

GC: While there are many possible answers, such as the ability to inspire others to follow your lead, I find the leadership model of family systems thinker Edwin Friedman (1932 -1996) both practical and transformational. For Friedman the essence of leadership is the capacity to take clear stands and stay connected. To do so requires trust of one’s own sense of direction, and respect for and trust of others. Most people lean one way or the other when they are in charge, only taking stands (leading autocratically) or only staying connected (leading by consensus). To put it another way, some dictate and erode the connection necessary for leading. Others are unwilling to take strong stands for fear of how people will feel. Either extreme creates problems.

MN: Are leaders born or developed?

GC: That is what I like so much about Friedman’s model. It was built working with families and then with church leaders. Anyone can adjust towards being clearer about what is important to them, and towards tuning in to the people they are leading and entrusting them more. So, do some adults have an easier time leading effectively? Certainly. I would say it is easier, for example, for an extrovert (a more social and talkative person) than an introvert (although I have known many introverts who were excellent leaders). On the other hand, can anyone improve their leadership skills? Absolutely.

Most, in my experience, underestimate the deep psychological importance of any formal leadership role. All humans are born completely dependent on the adult authority figures in their lives. The emotions that are experienced in those early relationships stay with us throughout life. We project them onto authority figures and live them out in our own roles of authority. To lead and/or follow effectively we must come to terms with our own reactions to authority, and we must empathize with the reactions of others. This is true whether we are a frontline supervisor, a CEO, or a parent. If we let our desire “not to be the boss” keep us from taking clear stands, or if we allow our defensiveness when people react to our stands to erode the connection, then we cannot lead. To truly lead one must provide direction or the Organisation will flounder, and one must effectively relate or the Organisation will not follow.

MN: Can we say every person has the capacity to be a leader?

GC: From my perspective, yes. Part of what is exciting about being human is that you never know who is going to step forward and lead. That is why it is wise for those in charge in an Organisation to respect the leadership of people at all levels. Front line workers know solutions that bosses cannot know, and wise bosses allow their workers to take the lead on solving problems and implementing solutions. In society at large, there are countless examples of people emerging as leaders, such as Malala in Pakistan, and Rosa Parks in the United States.

MN: A lot of money is being spent on leadership: How successful are leadership development interventions in the context of a business?

GC: The longer I practice organisation development, or OD, and I have been doing so since 1984, the more evident it is to me that group dynamics are the key to individual and organisation change. Development of leadership skills and habits must occur in the context of the leader’s systemic relationships. Most programs and coaching occur separate from the student’s work relationships, and are thus prone to those students who need help the most instead gaming the system. That is, they can talk the talk but not walk the walk. A solid program, and I have led many such, includes coaching the student while they interact with their direct reports, and lots of group based experiential learning. So, like with most things, some interventions are highly reliable, others much less so.

Another differentiator is the presence or absence of systems thinking. There is a lack of systems thinking in most Organisations and leadership development programs. For example, from a systems perspective, it’s not who is on the bus that is most important, it’s how the bus is being driven.

Most leaders are trapped in a paradigm of personality theory, obsessed with getting the right people on and off the bus. Many leaders I know take pride in their ability to judge people. That of course is necessary, but without a healthy dose of systems thinking, judging, and being judged, becomes the focus. That unintentionally drives fear and defensiveness into the culture, undermining the very openness necessary for high performance. Leaders would do well to strive with at least equal energy for creating the conditions for fostering high performance in the people that are reporting to them. If they are constantly changing people out, they are the problem, not the subordinates. The right driver can lift an entire system, the wrong driver can demoralize and undermine performance.  I have seen both many times.

MN: Do we have various levels or categories of leaders or its one group?

GC: The task of being an effective authority figure remains the same, whether your role impacts many (president, vice president, CEO, etc.) or a few (parent, front line supervisor, etc.). A mistake many programs make is separating the top leadership from the rest of the company. There is too much separation within companies as it is. Leadership development is a great opportunity to break down such vertical silos. In the programs I lead we mix hourly workers in with all the layers above them, including the top executive layer. If they cannot deal effectively with each other in a program, how are they to relate to each other out in the field?

MN: Can a leader be good in all situations? In other words is talent portable? Can I uplift a good leader from for example mining and put them in banking?

GC: An effective leader can lead in any situation. It helps to have knowledge of the processes and products you are leading, but leadership is really about setting the tone for the work culture and monitoring and measuring by results. Many leaders actually create more harm than good if they have a strong area of technical expertise. They may over-manage the part of the Organisation they are knowledgeable about, and under-manage the rest. No matter how smart you are, they further you are removed from the hands on work, the less you are going to know. You have to give the new people space.

MN: How important is domain specific knowledge in leading at the top? As an example I read a study that showed that in the medical field the best Chief Executives are those who have a medical background. Can this same principle be applied across all sectors?

GC: Without seeing it, I am initially a sceptic of the study. Granted, it will be easier to relate if you have experience in any field you are leading, but what still matters is your ability or inability to be clear and connect. And even if you are knowledgeable, such as in the medical field, you will have areas of expertise about which you know nothing, such as brain surgery for example, and you had better be good at delegating authority.

MN: Which field tend to produce the best Chief Executives?

GC: Sadly, one in four CEOs are Accountants. I say sadly, because I think too much focus on financial data often backfires, leading to poor financial performance in the long run. I have seen many examples of what looked good on paper bleed a company dry, such as granting bids to the lowest cost supplier of vital parts only to have production and ultimately profits suffer. In a competitive market such penny wise pound foolish thinking can lead to irreversible losses. Of course, some of these Accountant CEOs understand a more systemic view…but not all of them.

MN: Most companies are putting potential leaders under a coaching and mentorship program. How important and effective is such programs?

GC: Coaching and mentoring varies widely in its effectiveness. Some of the best happens informally because individuals are smart enough to seek the wisdom of more experienced leaders. I am sceptical of any coach who doesn’t see their coachee engaging in work   meetings and conversations. Talking privately isn’t enough. I question the effectiveness of coaches who have never been in Organisations. They will be limited to more of a counselling capacity.

MN: What is the best way to put a leadership development program in a company?

GC: I would definitely talk to some live references, not just to sales people. I would also consider some of what I have already said. Traditional classroom learning is not going to cut it. You need group experiential learning, and some coaching in the field. If you are starting from scratch, I would be happy to offer guidance.

MN: How do you measure the success or failure of leadership development programs?

GC: I measure the success of all Organizaton Development, including Leadership Development, by the success of the Organisation. Are your metrics improving? Are students within the program applying their learning, perhaps as a case study, to achieving business critical outcomes? The program should be part of a strategy led by the line Organisation for business success.

Memory Nguwi. Memory Nguwi is an Occupational Psychologist, Data Scientist, Speaker, & Managing Consultant- Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd a management and human resources consulting firm. He is the president of the Zimbabwe Psychology Association. He hosts a radio program HR Perspective every Thursday at 1900hrs on Capitalk 100.4FM Phone 481946-48/481950/2900276/2900966  or email:  or visit our website at


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