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Are Leaders Born or Created?

3 min

There are many pre-determined assumptions about how a leader is defined. Leaders are not born. Historically, a leader has to be seen on a hierarchical ladder as someone who is managing others. Rather, they are shaped by their life and their relationships. Their skills have to be learned. They are manifested over the sum of their experiences.


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In July of 2015, I was a sailing coach on Lake St. Clair between the Detroit River and Lake Huron. It wasn’t a large staff for the program. There were four different coaches working together to organize a sailing program with about 20 sailors ranging from ages 6 to 16. 

I was assigned to the “learn to sail” students. The gap in the range of skills was enormous. It was challenging juggling the backgrounds of everyone. Gwen and Julia were speed demons, while Mary preferred to sail slowly in control. Juan cried for attention every chance he got, and Jaylin only wanted to sit in the corner playing Clash of Clans. Isaac didn’t know how to swim, and Benjamin had to go to the almost bathroom every hour. CJ was afraid of clouds thinking they would cause a tornado. Needless to say, close bonds were formed. I got to know what they were afraid of and who they were at their core. I was their support and there to guide them while they were lost. As a coach, I learned how to have the kids take action and sail even when they didn’t feel like it. I strived to help them find joy in the sport out of spite of their attitude or fears. 

The learning was progressing smoothly as the sailors accelerated up the curve with their different skillsets until one-night half-way through the season. It was a Wednesday evening and I received a text from the head coach saying he wouldn’t be coming in tomorrow and was quitting. I called him to explain. He and his brother were out for the remainder of the season. They received a gig on the East Coast for better money. They left in less than a day.

The coach who was left texted me suggesting we cancel practice for the rest of the week. I knew we had a race coming up that Friday. Instead, I said we should show up and see how it goes the next day. I told our sailors the news being sure to frame the story that it was not the kids’ fault for their leaving. Nevertheless, the children didn’t take it well. Some cried.  A couple hid in the shed. Several started a virtual clan war to send the two departed coaches a message. Morale was at an all-time low. 

Of the four coaches selected for this program, I felt by far the least qualified of the four coaches. I was convinced the club hired me out of desperation for hire. I hadn’t completed the certification course. I had sailing experience but of a different kind on a bigger boat that was 40 feet long with 10 teammates. The coaching for the learn-to-sail students was on 8-foot long Optimist dingy boats. We called them optis. I learned the basics of sailing on the bathtub looking boats myself in my childhood for seven summers. The sport was dominated by boys who aggressively cursed and took competitions as life-or-death. Racing was a large time commitment, so since it was no longer enjoyable, I quit. 

I also felt like an imposter because all I had experience sailing was optis and occasionally a laser while growing up. I did not know the specifics around the 2-person boat, the 420. Thankfully, the sailors had already learned the way of how to sail them and they ended up teaching me more than I already knew. All they needed was my encouragement. Leaders feel like imposters because they need to act as their future selves in their present shoes. 

I look back on this experience with a smile on my face. Those remaining 4 weeks of the summer were a bit stressful, but the most rewarding of them all. It showed me how a challenging experience turns you into a leader. My students were left behind by their original leaders and felt lost. There were big shoes to fill. I was forced to step up and be there for them.

So, are leaders born or created? They are a culmination of their experiences they live out and learn to be agile. Curveballs get thrown and the leader comes out from within them. Leaders are created. 

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