Born a leader or learn to be a leader?

After our discussion the first night of class and watching Whale Rider, I pondered the question again on whether you are born a leader or if you learn how to be a leader.

It seemed that what I saw on Whale Rider and particularly in Pai, is that many of our great leaders hold characteristics within them that can qualify them as being "born leaders.� There are people out there who could be great leaders and don’t take advantage of the qualities they may possess or are not aware of it, but those who do are the great leaders.

Pai was born a leader. Even though at a young age she could not possess all the skills and knowledge that it takes to be a great leader, she carried characteristic as described in Kouzes and Posner that drove her determination. Pai was born with the drive and determination that although many things were working against her, she still felt driven to accomplish what she thought was right for the people and for the community as a whole.

I believe successful leaders learn from the strengths that they possess and are "born� with at some level and build upon these. They continue to build up their success through the skills, knowledge, theory, and practice that exists from others and within their learning environment. The "born� qualities of a leader supplemented by the learnings that an individual goes through within life (professionally and personally) is what seems to create our most successful leaders like Pai.


Whale Rider presented the idea that leaders are born, the film's outcome also challenged those ideas. Based on the born leader philosophy, the "real" leader for the Maori people was Pai's brother, who died at birth. Due to their solid belief that their next leader was chosen and would be Pai's brother, they neglected to see the leadership qualities in Pai. She was born with personality traits that fostered leadership, such as bravery and passion, but she learned to lead by learning the skills and traditions of her culture. Pai became a strong leader due to her tenacity and spirit, along with a little encouragement from her grandmother.
The film reminded me of two things: 1) You can't force people into a role or to be a leader if they are not passionate about it (i.e., Pai's father) and 2) Sometimes the best leaders don't look the way we think they will or come from an unexpected person.

Effective leadership is a result of careful awareness of the "Self". One cannot really be a good leader unless they know themselves. The insight actually came from a friend who, conversely to my extreme community involvement, works hard at his own endeavors. He reasons with this by bringing up "ahimsa" or non-harming (one of the ten guidelines of yoga) and the idea that if one helps others but doesn't have a good grounding, they actually may do more harm to the community. In this sense, Poi's role as a leader couldn't have been realized any sooner. She had to understand herself, develop her talents and abilities, before she could really make an impact on her people.

I had seen whale rider twice before. The first time when it came out in the theater, and the second time was in a feminism class that I took in my undergraduate studies. I enjoyed watching it for both this class, and my feminist class. When you are watching it through a specific lens different parts stick out and you may notice something new or from a different perspective. I feel the leaders of many Christian denominations could learn from this film when trying to debate the issue of ordaining LGBT clergy. In Whale rider Pai's father truly felt that Pai had "cursed" the tribe by trying to learn some of the practices that were reserved specifically for the men. He was closed to the idea of change and couldn't open up to the possibility that a woman could be a leader (at least until there were too many signs to ignore).

The church uses some of the same rhetoric. There have been many church denominations that struggled with allowing women to be ordained (some still do not allow it). Now many are repeating the process with the debate of whether or not to allow LGBT people to be ordained leaders. I think the movie has an important message that ties into what we have been discussing the past two weeks. There can never be too many leaders and each leader can contribute something unique that may otherwise never be contributed if required to remain silent.

In the film Whale Rider when the whales washed ashore, Pai's grandfather exclaimed twice, "Who is to blame?" That he is asking "who" and not "what" or "how" is I believe one example of the how much emphasis the culture places on the relationship between humanity and divine intervention. I think this supports the Maori belief that leadership is born.

Though I would like to be open to this concept, it flies in the face of what I believe. I see community leaders crop up all the time from a single issue like they don't want chemicals running into the sewers or somebody's selling drugs from the house down the street. People... individuals can be motivated by anything, tragic or wonderful, at a very young age or late in life. We see it all the time. It is their passion for a cause that makes them a leader, which is to say they can motivate followers, if they are authentic and energizing.

Furthermore, sometimes the success of an impassioned leader actually leads to the creation of an impassioned oppositional leader! More often than not I would say. There's one to chew on.

An additional, more abstract, discussion would be about the term "born". In most of the conversations about leaders we may often define born, as our birth, or the time we began or entered this life.

What if the term born was more closely tied to the time that leaders experience an awakening, a recognizable sense of purpose, a burgeoning desire to do something about a particular issue. Is that a time when leadership is born, this experience can be similar to a religious experience of awakening and can ignite a strong and viable passion that can move someone to step into a leadership role. If this type of definition is adopted, then we can possibly say all leaders are born, not by birth and bloodline, but birth of a particular passion and or desire. Then natural talents and learned skills can, and are often, applied to situations of leadership.

I am glad that you brought up this point about "awakening" to leadership. I think this is very importnat to consider. While I believe that it's possible for someone to both be born a leader and also for some to become a leader later in life because of a strong desire and drive, I also think there is a 3rd category of people that are called into positions of leadership. In my studies of native and tradaitonal healing I have come across this third category many times. For example, in many cultures, someone becomes a community leader and healer after having an episode of seizures or what in this culture might be considered "temporary insanity"; hearing voices and seeing things. But it is believed that this is the spirit world contacting them and telling them that they are a choosen healer. These people may have had no previous desire to be a leader or healer, but they were choosen and therefore fulfill their mission. I have hear many stories such as this that can relate more to Western life, such as someone waking up one day and completely changing their course of life because they just know that they are supposed to do something different or important for the world. Like Ray Lamontagne, a now very sucessful singer/artist. He said that he just woke up one day in his thirties and knew that he needed to sing, he had never written a song/sang or played music before, but he started and he got a record deal right away, which is almost unheard of and now be is very famous and his music touches and moves many people. But the strange part about the story is that he talks about his career as if it chose him and he didn't have a choice about it. He is also deathly shy and it is very hard for him to do interviews or even talk inbetween his songs at concerts. But his music is very beautiful!

Does anyone else have thoughts on this concept?

The last two discussion points on what being "born" a leader means has been interesting to me. I too believe that one can be "born" in different ways. It may be that they are born with the talents and drive to be a leader from birth, much like how I saw Pai, or they may have that awakening to be "born" at various times in their life. The story of Ray Lamontagne is interesting. I have not heard of that before. It is great to learn stories of those that are inspired or have that epiphany and realize what they are "born" to do or what they can to do be successful.
As with both viewpoints on being “born�, I still believe that it really is up to the individual to decide if they want to take what they have and run with it and use their talents or continue to go about life as is. It is completely an individual choice. It seems that many great leaders embrace being “born� into the leadership role and therefore impact others at such a positive level.

Several interesting thoughts have been brought up related to spirituality, religion, culture, and awareness, and how they contribute to leadership. Many cultures that Western civilization deems "uncivilized" seem to be much more in touch with their feelings and subconscious, the emotions and motives of others, and how all forces in the universe come together.

While not in Pai's grandfather's case, I wonder if this awareness may in fact lead to the more authentic leadership toward which we seem to be striving?

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs