Is leadership the product of the person or the place?

One camp says it’s the force of the individual. Through a combination of genetics and experience, some are leaders. And leaders act upon circumstances, make the market, revolutionize the industry, jump the trend.

Another camp says that leadership is the force of the place, the situation, the Zeitgeist (German for “spirit of the times”). Here, leaders are forged from present pressures and tectonic-like tipping-points. The momentum of the moment molds the players in the play.

The leader makes the times, the times make the leader. Which is it?

Both. The qualities of the leader—be they courage, intelligence, insight, or empathy—must compliment the current state of affairs. The person and the situation are inextricably linked; can’t have one without the other. But how do these forces combine to cause leadership? The answer lies, curiously enough, in evolutionary theory.

Many of us claim to understand evolution. We toss terms like “survival value” and explain event sequences as “evolutionary processes.” But how many have actually read Darwin’s 1859 The Origin of the Species? I dug into it to untangle the web of persons and situations, individuals and times, leaders and leadership.

Darwin was very clear about two natural cycles: production and maintenance. The cycle of production is that which produces variation. Deep in the genetic code of all species lays a “tendency for spontaneous variation.” The genotype (genetic composition) and consequent phenotype (observable characteristics) of all species just plain vary once in a while. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. The process is immune to environmental conditions. It appears to be—even with electron microscopes—random, accidental, and unknowable.

The cycle of maintenance is that which maintains variation after it’s been produced. Here is “survival of the fittest.” Here is the where the environment either selects for or rejects variations produced and introduced by the cycle of production. This process is perfectly observable and logical. Keep in mind that in no case does the cycle of maintenance create the variation, but it is the ultimate arbiter of whether it flowers or flounders, thrives or dies.

The giraffe’s neck makes the case. If asked why the giraffe’s neck is long, most will reply it’s because there’s digestible foliage in the forest’s canopy for which there is less competition. Most would be dead wrong.

The length of the giraffe’s neck has nothing to do with food in the high fronds. That length is a result of the cycle of production. Those high fronds are the environment—the cycle of maintenance—which selects or rejects post-hoc. The environment chose the peculiar neck but it didn’t make it.
What this has to do with leaders and leadership is two-fold. First, leaders are not manufactured by their times. They are instead best understood as unique and genuine spontaneous variations born of the cycle of production and endowed with consciousness and volition. Second, leaders cannot lead unless their talents are conducive to the times—the cycle of maintenance. If leaders (a noun) are not surrounded by conditions that favor their talents, they cannot lead (a verb). But when these forces align—person-place, production-maintenance—leadership (both noun and verb) can unfold.

Two towering figures illustrate this interplay. Benjamin Franklin might have been remembered as a clever inventor and diarist had it not been for the War of Independence. The war didn’t create Franklin; he was his own man. But it did call for his particular qualities. He and the moment were well matched. Another is Winston Churchill; a churlish chap, seemingly ill-suited for the modern world because of his quixotic 19th century principles. Still, his gifts were exactly what times required. WWII didn’t make Churchill, it selected him. He made sense.

With this in mind, leaders—potential and proven—should ask some questions. Are their qualities aptly matched with their firm’s dynamics? Are they well-fit for their position? Even if they possess abundant leadership qualities, if ill-suited, they’ll go unrecognized by organizations, peers and reports alike. That’s frustrating, and always compromises performance and satisfaction for all involved. Jaguars don’t do well in deserts just as strong personalities don’t do well in gentle organizational cultures.

Fortunately, unlike instinctual animals— long-necked giraffes, migrating birds, light-drawn moths—we humans possess volition. That means if introspective about our leadership qualities, we don’t’ have to be passive receptors of environmental currents. We can instead intentionally develop competencies that equip us for extant challenges. We can also move within the firm to a unit or department or team that’s better allied with our idiosyncratic skills. Or, we can go to another firm where our qualities are consistent with their demands. What I’m saying is this: those of us that find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time can adjust by developing complimentary skills, move to a more harmonious position in our firm, or up-root to re-root in friendlier soil.

A profound implication of this analogy is the impact that leaders have on their environments. Just as the introduction of a new species changes the floral and faunal equilibrium of a region, so does leadership. By their thoughts and deeds, leaders change the organization and culture that they are leading. In so doing, leaders may lead themselves out of leadership. For instance, a transformational, people-oriented leader may be exactly what is needed during times of crisis. But if that leader overcomes the challenges to set the organization on firm footing, his or her qualities may no longer be needed. A transactional, process-oriented leader may be better suited. Ironic, isn’t it, that successful leaders sufficiently change the conditions of their organizations so that those conditions are no longer favorable to their unique talents?

This may be why chief executive officers should stay no longer than five years. If they haven’t transformed the organization in that time, then they weren’t properly matched in the first place. If they have transformed the organization, then it’s a different environment, and it’s well-nigh time they move on.

We are creatures of nature, and as such are subject to its fundamental dynamics. But we are not merely visceral, primitive beings. We are instead singularly brimming with free-will. Our leadership is our own. But our talent is for naught if our competencies are not consistent with the conditions and culture of our clans. We have the power to change ourselves or change our surroundings. True leaders not only know who they are, but also know where they belong.

For a more in-depth treatment, read my extended version in the Journal of Leadership Studies.

James Bailey