Born or Made: Lincoln & Jordan

Abraham Jordan

Answer the question “Are Leaders Born or Are They Made?” the same way you would answer this question: “Are Athletes Born or Are They Made?”

Well, are they born or made? The short answer is “both.”

But is it really? And in what context?

When NBA great Michael Jordan was in elementary school playing with the other kids on the playground, he was headed for a life of great achievement on the basketball courts. When he later tried his hand at minor league baseball, he didn’t have the same stellar results as he did with basketball.

Was Michael Jordan a born athlete, or was he made?

1) Michael Jordan was born.
2) He was a great athlete.
3) But not in all sports.
4) And only for a period of time

A childhood friend of Michael Jordan’s could have beaten him at basketball 9 out of 10 times in elementary school. But as Jordan’s natural basketball talents, inclinations, effort, drive, ambition, opportunities, coaching, obstacles, etc all unfolded, he was fashioned into something of great achievement.

There was a point where his childhood friend could no longer compete effectively against him as Jordan’s star began to rise. Michael would eventually beat him 10 out of 10 times in basketball. Perhaps his childhood friend could always beat him at another sport, but not the one where Michael displayed his wares.

But look at him now. Michael Jordan can no longer achieve his peak performance at basketball today. He is too old. Is he still considered to be a great athlete? How is his golf game?

Back to Jordan’s childhood playground. If everyone was required to participate in athletics, they all could be called (to some degree) “athletes” to a casual onlooker. However, few of these playground athletes would rise to the level of even making the high school team let alone becoming an NBA superstar. Are these people athletes in your mind? What about the naturally talented player on that playground who could compete at Jordan’s level that never had the opportunity to play in NBA glory because of life circumstances. Is he considered to be a great athlete?

Was Abraham Lincoln a born leader, or was he made?

So when it comes to leadership, like athletics, everyone can lead at something just as everyone can play kickball. But that doesn’t mean that they will have the natural abilities, the inclination, the motivation, the opportunities, the encouragement, the fortitude, the support, and the attitude to make it to be a world renowned leader or to be the Kickball Champion of the World.

Are you really asking the question: “Athlete, or Great Athlete?” Or are you asking “Leader, or Great Leader?”

So when looking at leaders, simply picture them as an athlete at some level in the game that they are playing. You can then have a decent framework to judge their relative effectiveness in a particular endeavor. You will see that leaders, like athletes, come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, experience levels, etc. You will also be able to see if they are in an environment that is a good fit for them. 

You can ask yourself these questions:

“Are they emotionally stuck on the playground and don’t know it?”
Are they an average high school player?
Are they in the big leagues, but about to get cut from the team?
Are they even playing the right sport?

Or you could adopt the framework of asking yourself “Are they a future Michael Jordan or Abe Lincoln who needs encouragement, support, opportunity, and coaching to make it to the next level.”

One does not need to be a Michael Jordan to be an athlete. Nor does one need to be an Abraham Lincoln to be a leader. One just needs to be in a game where they can have the best opportunity to play to their strengths and in an environment that is conducive to their personal and professional growth. That is where the best athletes shine. That is where the best leaders shine.

By the way, my favorite answer to the “Born or Made” question is this:  “They are born to be forged.” 

Bonus L2L Presentation. View, Download & Share!


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Tom Schulte is Executive Director of Linked 2 Leadership &
CEO of Recalibrate Professional Development in Atlanta, GA USA
He can be reached at
Image Source: tommyland

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