When Are Leaders Made?

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, consistently appears as one of greatest three Presidents in U.S. history in rankings by academics. The most recent comprehensive survey, co-produced by the Wall Street Journal in October of 2000, collected responses from 78 eminent scholars in history, law, and politics who ranked Lincoln as the 2nd greatest President in history, behind only George Washington.
Lincoln’s courageous leadership during a time of crisis for America helped to end slavery and to restore union among the American states. His refusal to be discouraged by failure, his clear sense of right and wrong, his powerful writing and speaking talents, his humility, his personal charisma and magnetism, and his reputation for hard work and honesty are cited as some of the characteristics that made Lincoln the leader he was.

Reading about Lincoln’s life one cannot help but notice a staggering fact: Nearly every one of the traits mentioned above was formed very early in his life-largely before he reached his late teens or mid- 20s.

Lincoln’s humble nature was certainly formed by his poor upbringing, living in a one room log cabin in an area of poor farmland that was described at the time as a “barren waste[land]”. His clear sense of right and wrong came unambiguously from his father, who disliked slavery and followed a strict moral code that prohibited profanity and intoxication. Abraham shared his parents views and later said that he “was naturally anti-slavery” and “couldn’t remember a time when [he] did not so think and feel”.

He suffered and overcame enormous obstacles as a young boy, which surely freed him from a fear of failure and hardship. Among a long list of trials he was almost killed when a horse accidentally landed a kick to his forehead and he suffered through the death of his mother, all before he was 10 years old. He even honed the crisp, poetic writing-style of a man who would one day write the Gettysburg Address very early in his life.

These words, for example, he wrote as a boy: “Abraham Lincoln is my name/And with my pen I wrote the same/I wrote in both haste and speed/and left it here for fools to read.” All of these essential characteristics were formed in Lincoln when he was only a young man.
Even his interest in the law and his passion for the Constitution would be fully formed before the age of thirty. I could go on at length with evidence to support this submission, but will instead encourage you to read David Donald’s (a Harvard Professor and two time Pulitzer winner) recent biography “Lincoln”.

I have noticed this same pattern-that essential traits of great leaders seem to be formed very early in their lives-in reading many biographies and in my own personal observations of leaders. This holds for business and scientific leaders, as well as for political ones.

When are leaders made? I believe the answer is “very early in their lives”. Specifically, it seems that one’s ability to lead is essentially formed early in life by the set of experiences, hardships, and influences that impress upon us by our late teens, and certainly by the time we are young adults, in our early and mid twenties. After that, changes to our “leadership potential” seem much more marginal than momentous.

A recent article in our own Harvard Business Review lends support to this view. In a piece titled “Are you picking the right leaders?” in the February 2002 issue, authors Melvin Sorcher and James Brant write that “experience has led them to believe that much of leadership talent is hardwired in people before they reach their early or mid 20s”.

Yet how much of our thinking on leadership recognizes this important finding? Because if true, this conclusion raises a whole series of interesting questions about the teaching and practice of leadership.

For society as a whole, do parents understand how critical the early experiences of their children are in determining future leadership capacity? Are elementary and secondary schools putting enough emphasis on formative leadership experiences like studying abroad, volunteering, and athletics? Are society’s best and brightest teachers and motivators working with young people to provide the best set of early influences?

For the business world, of the hundreds of millions of dollars corporations spend every year on leadership training programs for senior executives and senior managers-is all that money providing only marginal benefits in performance? If leadership capacity really is hardwired by an individual’s 20s, shouldn’t we channel more of that money into recruiting to identify existing leadership potential instead of paying huge sums when it’s too late to make real changes?

For HBS, shouldn’t we talk more about the kinds of experiences and hardships we might yet expose ourselves to that could still have an effect on our unformed potential? Should HBS try to recruit younger and younger intakes so that it might have a greater impact on their trajectory? Does HBS really create leaders, or does it just recruit and crown existing ones?

And for ourselves, if our leadership capacity is largely formed, how much of our future careers should we spend in corporate leadership seminars and expensive weekend leadership getaways?

Leadership potential seems to be formed early. Our teaching and practice of leadership ought to be influenced accordingly.