What makes a person into a leader? Research suggests a few causes, many beginning while the person is still young.
Carl Larson, Professor Emeritus of Communications Studies at the University of Denver, spent his professional life trying to understand leadership, organizational behavior, and team performance. In his book "Teamwork", co-authored by Frank LaFasto, they describe the characteristics of effective teams:
• A clear, elevating goal
• A results-driven structure
• Competent team members
• Unified commitment
• A collaborative climate
• Standards of excellence
• External support and recognition
• Principled leadership
• Not surprisingly, it almost always comes down to leadership.
I once had the opportunity to hear Prof. Larson talk about the origins of leadership. As he pointed out, most scholars look at the performance characteristics and personalities of leaders at a given point in time, usually during a crisis or at a time of great challenge, for example, Roosevelt and Churchill during the war, Giuliani during 9/11 or Jack Welsh during the heyday of GE. Prof. Larson's approach, however, was to try to identify the sources of leadership and how it evolves. He concluded, after studying 30 highly successful leaders in the not-for-profit world, that there were three patterns that emerge at a very early age.
The first was a critical inciting event. One social entrepreneur witnessed the shooting death of both his parents and went on to create a foundation for orphans. Another saw homeless children in India while a pre-teen and created a charity to feed hungry children. A third was left fatherless as a result of a war and originated an organization supporting the children of veterans.
The second pattern was evidenced by those leader entrepreneurs who felt such passion and empathy for a cause, that they literally could not do anything else other than help. Think Tom's shoes.
Finally, some leaders had the good fortune to have models or examples of leadership at home, school or community and were able to replicate it.
Research on predictive entrepreneurial success factors indicates that the one best test is how young someone was when they created their first company. Likewise, Larson's research reminds us that leadership traits appear as a result of environmental and genetic factors at a very young age.