There is an ongoing debate, within both the literature and professional practice, over whether leaders are born or made. This argument centers on the premise that those qualities that make leaders successful cannot be taught. Such qualities might include ambition, motivation, and a strong work ethic.
There is a general agreement in the literature that these qualities are inherent within individuals who emerge as leaders in the organizational workplace. Certainly, many great leaders of our time have possessed these qualities. However, qualities—or traits—of motivation, ambition, and work ethic are difficult to measure by themselves. Most often, proxy outcomes are assigned to these qualities as justification for the presence of these traits. Such proxy variables might include education (if the individual is motivated, he or she might pursue higher education for an advanced degree), number of hours worked, or number of jobs held at one time, all of which might lead outside agents to conclude that the individual possesses a strong work ethic. Although motivation and ambition are certainly good qualities for leaders to possess, they are not by themselves precursors to successful leader outcomes.
Take, for example, the Ponzi scheme created by former tycoon Bernard Madoff. 9 Well known as an extremely ambitious and motivated individual, Madoff became the architect of the greatest financial scam in U.S. history. 10 Clearly, ambition and motivation are not by themselves traits of leadership.
Another example might be Adolf Hitler. Using basic leadership theories of followership and transformation, Hitler might effectively be designated a leader through the example of his successful rebuilding of Germany after World War I. Nevertheless, to refer to Hitler as a leader—after considering the totality of his “work”—is insulting to the profession of leadership. No, Hitler does not occupy a position in the highly regarded field of leaders. He was, at best, a despot and a dictator. 11 Leaders must be moral actors.
New leader models have emerged in the field of leadership that screen out dictators and despots from the honored study of those individuals who have earned the designation of leader.