Businesspeople competing in in a tug-of-war battle on the great debates about leadership

There are many debates about leadership, but in the end they’re all trying to answer one simple question: What makes a great leader?

Many have come to revere Steve Jobs as a leader because his company was so successful, but he was famously a tyrant in the workplace. Alexander the Great was a leader with an even longer-lasting legacy . . . but is he the guy you want in the room when you make your case for a raise?

Are leaders born with something special? Are we meant to emulate famous leadership icons, or to find our own way? What if we don’t have the ambition to become a leader at all?

In an ever-changing business world, the great debates about leadership are far from finished. And it’s not only leaders who need to follow along. There are certain things about leadership we should all know to grow as businesspeople—and just as people.

Here’s how leadership faculty at Japan’s No. 1 MBA school weigh in on some of the great debates about leadership.

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Are leaders born or made?

Perhaps the most extensive area of leadership study tackles the question of nature vs. nurture. Do you have to be born with certain traits to be a leader, or can leadership skills be learned?

GLOBIS University faculty often receive this question from students. Here’s how they answer.

“There is no such thing as a perfect leadership style.”

Students often ask, “Can leadership really be learned?” The assumption behind this question is that leaders are born, not made. There’s a widespread misconception that only a directive personality allows people to be leaders.

In the Organizational Behavior and Leadership course at GLOBIS University, we discover through case discussions that a combination of leadership personality, leadership behavior, and the leadership situation result in an effective leadership style. While personality cannot be easily changed, leadership behaviors—such as inspiring and guiding people—can be learned. Additionally, the most effective leadership style depends on the leadership situation, so there is no such thing as a “perfect leadership style.”

Understanding a unique leadership situation and concluding the most effective leadership behaviors for that situation are both skills that can be learned.

Axel Wellbrock, Organizational Behavior and Leadership

“No matter how perfect a management strategy may be, it won’t find success until it is properly implemented.”

When we talk about leadership and personnel management, many students tend to think these are skills that differ from person to person, relying on individual characteristics or tacit knowledge. In other words, they believe leadership and management skills cannot be replicated.

However, leadership and organizational behavior theory are based on sociology and psychology. There are a variety of scientific theories and frameworks, including some that are quite new.

In addition, no matter how perfect a management strategy may be, it won’t find success unless it is properly implemented. People and organizations are directly connected to the foundation of management, and that foundation is made up of both artistic and scientific thinking. It’s a fascinating field of study, and I hope more people come to realize how accessible it is to everyone.

Kyoko Hayashi, Organizational Behavior and Leadership

Do leaders just follow orders from further up the chain?

Here’s something you’ve probably experienced: Your boss delivers bad news, shakes his head, and says, “Sorry, my hands are tied.” This is something of a back-door debate about leadership, but an important one, nonetheless: Is it possible that the only person with real power in an organization is the guy at the very top? Does everyone under the CEO just parrot what they’ve been told, or is it possible to become a leader with conviction in the middle of the chain?

If you’re feeling powerless, our faculty suggest a change of mindset.

“Every human being subconsciously compares his or her life to the movement of the sun.”

I always tell students to think about their own goals while developing their leadership styles, and that starts from their fundamental values. But students often wonder how to do this in practice—and even if their own values really matter when they’re working as part of the organization.

The psychiatrist Carl Jung talked about the “afternoon of life.” Every human being subconsciously compares his or her life to the movement of the sun—rising at birth, reaching its highest point in the middle of life, and then diminishing toward death. This is why so many people face serious questions about what their life is all about. It’s a sign that they are living it in the “midday” period of their lives.

A student recently reflected on this in class. He realized that he had been blaming the company and running away from his true self, and he’d resolved to change into a new person and live a meaningful life. The change in his perspective really moved me.

If you feel your position is stopping you from living your values, I suggest you look inward. Is it really the company that’s stopping you from developing a meaningful career? Or are you stopping yourself?

Kyoko Hayashi, Leadership Development, Ethics and Values

“The mindset and behaviors of leaders inspire and guide employees and organizations.”

Many students believe that organizational behavior and leadership are about managing HR strategies, incentives and salary systems, organizational structures, designing job descriptions, etc. Students are often (positively) surprised that HR management is just a small part of it.

At GLOBIS University, the Organizational Behavior and Leadership course covers people and organizations in a socio-psychological manner. We discover the thoughts and emotions that drive the behaviors of leaders, managers, and employees as they change and implement strategies, systems, and structures. We discuss the mindset and behaviors of leaders who inspire and guide employees and organizations.

All of this helps students understand how to consider plausible options when there does not seem to be an obvious solution.

Axel Wellbrock, Organizational Behavior and Leadership

Does every leader set out with the ambition to lead?

We see them everywhere, those young go-getters eager to prove their worth and climb the ladder. Good leaders may not all be born with key leadership traits, but surely they all have ambition.

So what if you don’t? What if your company is pushing you to be a leader, but that’s not what you want?

Here lies another of the great debates about leadership: Does every leader know they want to lead? Our leadership faculty suggest starting with that question, and then examining the answer.

“Take your time.”

“Do you really want to become a leader?” I always ask this question in my leadership class, and it’s always followed by a moment of silence. Students need time to answer—in fact, quite a few realize that they are not sure, though they’re taking a leadership course. Some even criticize themselves because they feel they should want to be leaders, but lack the desire to do so.

Where does all this uncertainty come from?

The problem here is not lack of aspiration to become a leader. Rather, it’s that the students haven’t yet taken the time to define their own ideal leader—what kind of leader they want to become. They haven’t discovered the best version of themselves, their own leadership potential.

Many people think that “becoming a leader” means becoming a leader like their own boss, or perhaps a charismatic leader they’ve heard about. But really, there are various forms of leaders, each with different characters, styles, and behaviors. 

How do you become your ideal leader?

Inner work is needed. My suggestion is to take plenty of time to reflect on the following essential questions:

  1. What is your ideal image of a leader, the one that you want to become?
  2. What is the best version of yourself at work?

Once you figure out your vision of an ideal leader, it’s much easier to act with enthusiasm and realize your full potential. Take your time, and good luck!

Tadahiro Wakasugi, Leadership Development, Ethics and Values


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