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Are leaders born or trained?

“Be the head, not the tail nor anything in between.” This seems to be what Asian parents keep on telling their kids. For every parent, their child was “born to be a leader.”

To them and for many others, leadership is about knowledge, position and power. While these are quite important in exercising leadership, they are only means to bringing about real change.

Leadership is about addressing “the elephant in the room.” It is a continuing practice that requires the courage to surface what is broken or likely to break in the system. People dislike talking about issues that, when left as they are, bring harm, trouble, or difficulty. When there is no leader to address these “sticky challenges,” the default result is either worsening decay or, at best, mediocrity.

‘Saving face’

Being a leader means being brave enough to point out what everybody would rather forget and sweep under the rug. In Asia, which is highly hierarchical and where a sense of tradition is strong, leadership challenges abound. In Malaysia, “jaga air muka” or saving face is an obstacle to addressing realities that bog down progress. In countries like Japan, people can perceive directness as rudeness, making passive-aggressive behavior quite common. This makes Asia a colorful arena to exercise leadership.  

Often, solutions may require changing mindsets, behavior, approaches, and traditions within ourselves and in others. Certainly, knowledge, expertise, and position or authority will help facilitate change. But these are often not enough to bring real, lasting change. We may end up addressing “what we do” but not “why we do what we do.”

For you to bring real change, you need to be convinced that addressing “the elephant in the room” matters. The underlying purpose is important because it will help us understand why this change matters and how it will ultimately bring about the common good.

A ‘leadership gene’?

Without a doubt, I believe that leadership can be nurtured. There is no mysterious “leadership gene.” When an individual starts paying attention to the things that are broken or are likely to decay, making the necessary changes while inspired by a greater and higher purpose—then he or she is a leader.

This reflection would be hanging without touching on concrete ways to exercise leadership. I recommend observing, acting, and reflecting. I expound on these three ways here:

  • Look around you. Start identifying what is broken or is likely to break that needs attention. Once you’ve identified it, speak up. You could raise the issue with the people involved or if it’s a community challenge, share about it on social media.
  • Seize leadership moments. Identify what you can do to make a difference, one that only you can make. For example, when people are stuck without a solution, disagree with the proposed solution, or are too overwhelmed by the problem, see what you can do to facilitate making meaningful progress. Always see what interventions can be made to address a challenge – no matter how small. I have a good friend who had a serious garbage problem in his neighborhood. Their sidewalks were littered with trash, and people in the area would dump their garbage anywhere. His leadership moment was when he and his family decided to clean up the entire street themselves. People saw them and before long, things started to change.
  • Step back and reflect. With busy schedules, it takes conscious effort to reflect on one’s life. You need to think about what has been done well, what can improved, and what should be avoided. This is about reflecting on the ultimate purpose and whether it has been served. In silence, you re-connect with the purpose and keep your inner fire burning.

I’m a staunch believer that leadership can be learned and nurtured. Becoming a leader, however, is not easy, as it requires a continuing exercise of bold and effective leadership. Time will eventually tell whether or not you have been a real leader and whether or not your leadership interventions have brought about meaningful progress.

By Samuel Kim