Classic Leadership Wisdom: Are Leaders Born or Made?

Are leaders born or made?

The question is at least two thousand years old and still being debated today. Plutarch, the first-century historian and biographer, came down firmly on the side of “made.” In his essay “On Education,” he argues persuasively that moral excellence–what today we might call leadership character–is about nurture more than nature, learning more than innate ability.

Learning to lead, however, is not the work of an hour or two. A drop of water will wear away a rock, but it takes ten years, twenty years … even a lifetime.  

“To speak generally, what we are wont to say about the arts and sciences is true of moral excellence, for to its perfect development three things must meet together: natural ability, theory, and practice. (By theory I mean training, and by practice working at one’s craft.) … Happy at any rate and dear to the gods is he to whom any deity has vouchsafed all these elements! But if anyone thinks that those who have not good natural ability cannot to some extent make up for the deficiencies of nature by right training and practice, let such a one know that he is very wide of the mark, if not out of it altogether … The wonderful efficacy and power of long and continuous labor you may see indeed every day in the world around you. Thus water continually dropping wears away rocks: and iron and steel are moulded by the hands of the artificer: and chariot wheels bent by strain can never recover their original symmetry: and the crooked staves of actors can never be made straight. But by toil, what is contrary to nature becomes stronger than even nature itself.”

-Plutarch, Moralia, “On Education”

About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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