What Is Leadership? Are You Born With It? Can It Be Learned?

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Leadership is written about a lot. In fact, lining the bookshelves of most stores, you can find many pop science books reducing leadership to specific traits; such as having a vision, or persistence, or being a great story teller.

I’d like to explore whether or not leadership can be reduced to a set of traits and homogenized, much like a lot of the writing on the subject suggests.

We know, as humans, we fall prey to survivorship bias. We read books from successful people, suggesting all you need is characteristic A, B, and C to be like them. What we forget to do is look at the graveyard of people who also had those traits but didn’t quite make it. We also know that, as a story telling species, we love myth and motif. We fall in love with the symbolic concept of a great leader, bringing a following to salvation; or a demonic dictator, wielding individual power to cause havoc and mayhem.

With that in mind, I recently listened to a podcast between Jordan Peterson and General Stanley McChrystal. The podcast explored McChrystal’s book, ‘Leaders, Myth and Reality’. I wanted to see if there were any lessons that I could summarize and present in written form.

Jordan Peterson and General Stanley McChrystal

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a clinical psychologist. He is the author of the multi-million copy bestseller ’12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos’; as well as the now classic book ‘Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief’. He is a popular speaker across mediums, covering, among other things; myth, the psychology of religion, and frameworks to approach and navigate life.

What Is Leadership?

General Stanley McChrystal is a retired four-star general. He is the former Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and former Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan. Since 2010, he has taught courses in international relations at Yale University as a Senior Fellow of the University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

What Is Leadership?

Leaders, Myth and Reality Synopsis

In his book, McChrystal aims to debunk the many myths that have surrounded the concept of leadership. He focuses on thirteen great leaders, showing that the lessons we commonly draw from their lives are seldom the correct ones.

Leaders featured in the book include:

Founders: Walt Disney and Coco Chanel

Zealots: Maximilien Robespierre and Abu Musab Zarkawi

Powerbrokers: Margaret Thatcher and Boss Tweed

Genuises: Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein

Reformers: Martin Luther and Martin Luther Kind, Jr.

Heroes: Harriet Tubman and Zheng He

Synopsis Summary:

“Ultimately, McChrystal posits that different environments will require different leaders, and that followers will choose the leader they need. Aspiring leaders will be best served not by cultivating a standard set of textbook leadership qualities, but by learning to discern what is required in each situation.”

Lessons From The Podcast

Leadership Is Contextual

The key thing I found most interesting from the podcast, is that leadership is highly contextual. Different traits and characteristics will be effective in different contexts. This sounds obvious after the fact. However, we read books that prescribe a set of tenets for us to follow for us to be good leaders. The truth is, some of those tenets may work for your particular situation and some may not. That is a refreshing truth to hear.

There Are Traits That Seem Important For Good Leadership

However, both men do suggest that there are a series of characteristics that seem to be important for leadership. One of those is the ability to be courageous, particularly in giving trust to followers. Another is to have humility. That is to say to be humble enough to realise that when you begin a task, you know nothing, and so you need to listen and learn. And finally, great leaders seem to be adaptable. They are able to move and pivot strategically whilst staying focused on a higher order purpose.

The Art Of War

When summarizing the lessons, I thought of Sun Tzu’s masterpiece ‘The Art of War’, written sometime between 403–221 BC. In one of the preliminary chapters, ‘laying plans’, he details the steps necessary to be victorious in warfare as follows:

  1. Leadership — emergence of the leader through context and a following
  2. Timing — context, adaptability, strategy
  3. Risk (and terrain) — risk, adaptability, strategy
  4. Courage and Kindness — courage, trust
  5. Method and Discipline — humility, discipline

Upon first glance this classic has some wisdom that integrates nicely with the research and analysis done by McChrystal and his subsequent podcast with Peterson.

Here are the specific lessons teased out from the podcast:

Leadership is an emergent property

Seemingly, the essence of leadership is very difficult to define. As storytellers, we try to reduce it down into a category that weaves nicely into a story arc tapestry. We think of the symbol of the hero, peppered throughout history, passed down through myth, and told in our books and on our cinema screens.

Think of the recent Avengers movie, captivating our senses; or The Hunger Games.

It would appear that leadership is an emergent property of specific contexts and leaders as symbolic representations of the hopes and fears of their followers. Thought of this way, leadership is something that is given, or imbued upon a person.

I read a recent tweet stating that leadership is a state of mind, something that you do, defined by your actions; which I like, because it makes you take responsibility, which in turn gives you a sense of meaning. And I think, embodying this mindset helps prepare you for larger leadership. However, the research by McChrystal suggests that without the right chemistry between the right potential leader, the right cause and the right group mentality of a potential band of followers, it’s hard for a leader to emerge.

Think of Churchill, who led Britain to victory in the Second World War. The context was war. The country at the time needed someone with audacity, with spirit, and with the ability to narrativize the war effort and galvanize the people. With that in mind, the people were looking for someone to imbue leadership upon; a symbol, a motif. This symbiotic relationship between context, person and following allowed Churchill to emerge as a leader for that time.

Leadership is contextual, not homogeneous

Rather than being a prescriptive checklist of traits that we can learn and apply, leadership is highly contextual. As humans, we reduce leadership to a series of mythologies, a checklist of traits or behaviors that they do.


McChrystal states that as well as reducing leadership to a series of traits, followers demand their leaders to be effective and successful. Further, in an organisational context, we believe that leaders are responsible for it’s success or failure. According to McChrystal, all three of these beliefs are myths.


What he found is that, leadership is intentionally contextual. There is no such thing as a generic good leader.

If you take someone successful in organisation A, that is not necessarily an indicator that they will be successful in organisation B, compared to someone internal within organisation B.


In many cases, leaders are not the reason organisations succeed or fail. And in fact, followers often elect, select and follow a leader who ultimately takes them to failure. Leadership is not necessarily something someone posses, it is something they are given. It is an emergent property from the interaction between leaders-to-be, followers and the contextual moment in which it is occurring. And so it’s this very complex interaction that we try to simplify as we get our minds around it.

Commonalities Allied To A Higher Purpose

After listening to the podcast, and casting my mind to other texts or videos I’ve consumed where leadership is discussed or it is an inherent part of the message, my initial thoughts are that leadership, although not generic, does have a set of commonalities, allied to a higher purpose, as follows:

  • A set of commonalities possessed by a majority of leaders. These are the traits (and maybe others) detailed below — humility, courage, trust, adaptability.
  • A higher order purpose or goal
  • Specific behavioral traits in accordance with the emergent terrain that has arisen through the unique context and followers who are looking for those additional traits in any would-be leader.

Leadership requires understanding and humility


According to Peterson, effective leaders have to do a tremendous amount of work to get to know the organisation they will be leading, in order to fully understand it.

They do a lot of listening and aggregating. In an organisational context, if you go in and discuss the structure and operations at all levels, they will tell you how the organisation works, which you can then aggregate and reflect back.

According to Peterson, the understanding, aggregation and reflection process (and the interaction between followers and the leader-to-be) could be a contributor to the leadership-as-emergent-property definition given by McChrystal.

Team Fit

In a guide I wrote about Leadership Hiring Strategy, I quoted Harvard Business Review as saying that 50% of leadership hires fail within 18 months of them joining. The reason given for the failures was a lack of ‘team fit’; that is to say the integration between management team members and a would-be-leader. In the context of the advice given in the podcast, this makes further sense. If a would-be-leader does the work to acquire understanding of the business and work styles of the team, and takes time to assimilate and integrate that understanding before taking any action, they will command much more respect from existing senior figures than if they were to come in uninformed, belligerently and ignorantly changing things.


In the podcast, McChrystal called this trait ‘humility.’ Instead of thinking you have a solution, you listen, you show empathy to understand why people do what they do, and then you can figure out the type of leadership needed for the situation because it is always different.

To further emphasize the point, Peterson cited a study done that tries to identify what makes a physician an effective diagnostician. One of the markers is the number of words the patient speaks, relative to the number of words the physician speaks in the first 15 minutes of their interaction. The more words the patient speaks, the higher the diagnostic accuracy of the physician. The helps add weight to the fact that having humility, realizing there are things you don’t know, and taking the time to emphasis with and understand them, helps in both a leadership and decision-making capacity.

Team On-Boarding

Humility also helps to on-board a team and make them effective. Telling someone to solve a problem in a prescribed manner will do nothing to enroll them into their best work. Getting them to define the problem and formulate and implement their own solution is much more empowering. If someone formulates, solves and implements a problem and solution, they psychologically get a sense of ownership about it and all of the ups and downs that come with it. This is both much more empowering and imparts much more responsibility onto the team. It also develops the team over time. Only a leader who has taken the time to gather understanding through humility can guide a team down such a path.

Leadership is dynamic and strategic, not prescriptive; but arises from discipline and is allied to a set of higher order principles

The Optimal CEO

Of the people profiled in ‘Leaders, Myth and Reality’, the person that came out ‘best’ was Dr Martin Luther King Jr. If you were looking to hire a CEO for your organisation, according to McChrystal, Dr King Jr is a great match for the job.

Why? Because he was adaptable. He was humble. He constantly changed his tactics. He stayed focused on the overall goal. One week he would compromise on something, another week he would get himself put in jail to push something forwards. That flexibility, plus the ability to pull together the disparate group that was the civil rights movement, made him a very impressive leader.

Upon analysis, it appears Luther King Junior displayed a lot of humility and understanding. Before emerging as the leader we know him as, he had a good education and was instilled with a set of values. That is to say, he had a foundational set of beliefs and the intellectual ability to change his mind and update his world view. He constantly interacted with other leaders in the civil rights movement, adjusting and updating his beliefs and direction without ever giving away his objective.

We can reduce this down to the idea of both having a higher order purpose to focus on, coupled with the adaptability to alter the daily path that you take to get there.

The Sermon On The Mount

In the podcast, Jordan Peterson uses The Sermon on the Mount from The New Testament as reference material to add weight to this analysis.

He says that the first advice is to “keep your eyes on the prize”, to “lift your eyes up above the horizon and focus on some transcendent goal”, to “set your sights properly.” The next thing is to concentrate on the day, because the troubles of the day are sufficient.

That orients you in 2 ways:

  1. It gives you real direction
  2. It allows you to concentrate on what’s right in front of you and to make the course corrections that are necessary and that are associated with moment to moment transformation.

Higher Order Principles

That focus of having a set of higher order principles or purpose seemingly crops up in ways that can be associated with leadership in different literature. It makes me think of Viktor Frankl’s book, ‘Mans Search For Meaning’ and his discussion on existentialism. In his book, he stated that those that survived in the concentration camps had a purpose in life to focus on.

Discipline and Structure

Leadership seemingly arises out of discipline and structure as well. Peterson cites Friedrich Nietzsche, discussing his interest in the development of full individuality. Nietzsche knew this development emerged through the use of a rigorous disciplined structure. Some individuality emerges after some subordination to some structure. You have to pick a path and commit to something and lose yourself in it to some degree. That seems to go against the individual ethos but it’s actually a precursor to it.

Vision and Life Plan

At the organisational level, getting people to formulate a vision for and write down a life plan makes them 10% more productive over a 1 year period (Peterson study) than both those that write down how they can be better employees, and a control group. This indicates that discipline, structure and vision help to develop individuality, which is seemingly important for the emergence of leadership. The probability that you are going to hit a target that you don’t specify or aim at is extremely low.

It’s true, answering the question, ‘what do i want to do with my life?’ is extremely complicated and it changes. But if you aim at something and move forwards, and adjust your aim as you move, over time you learn what you need to adjust your aim to. So it doesn’t particularly matter if your plan isn’t 100% accurate, but it does matter that you have a vision to move forwards to and learn from.

Of the leaders profiled in McChrystal’s book, Coco Channel adopted best this ability to be opportunistic and amend her path, whilst keep some form of updated vision in mind. In order to both have a vision and dance on your feet when needed, you have to be allied to proper higher order principles.

Leadership requires trust (as a manifestation of courage)

The final commonality among good leaders seems to be that of courage. Courage in their convictions, courage to update their beliefs, courage to purse a cause. And most importantly, courage to extend their hand in trust to their followers.

As a child, you extend your trust through naivety. Then, over time, you get burned. Then you get cynical. And that’s no good because then you can’t trust or work with courage.

Therefore, it’s often a hugely courageous action to extend trust; it’s effectively a manifestation of courage. It’s saying, ‘I’m going to give you a responsibility and trust that the best of you will respond to that and come forward.’

Great leaders seemingly show courage through trust. And, together with humility and understanding, by giving trust they earn trust, which seems vital for successful leadership.


Based on the discussion between General Stanley McChrystal and Dr Jordan Peterson, at first pass we can hypothesize that:

  • Leadership is an emergent property created through the interaction between a would-be-leader, a would-be-cause, and a would-be set of followers.
  • In this sense, leadership is not something a person has, but something a person is given — by circumstance, and by followers.
  • Leadership is context specific. The context defines the type of leader required. There is no one-size fits all leader. There is no correlation between a person being successful as a leader in circumstance A, and their ability to be successful as a leader in circumstance B.
  • Having said that, there does seem to be a set of commonalities that good leaders possess. This does not suggest that either having all of these commonalities makes you a leader (as leadership is emergent, and there will be a graveyard of people who were unsuccessful in leadership with those commonalities), or having some or none of these commonalities makes you a bad leader.
  • These commonalities are: understanding and humility, having trust as a manifestation of courage, being adaptable in the moment whilst having a higher purpose / vision, and being allied to a set of higher order principles.
leadership performance
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