The world as the United States went to the polls to decide who would be their next president. Barack Obama eventually won out to secure another four-year stint in the White House after a bitterly fought contest that saw him reinstated as the head of one of the globe's most powerful nations, and the de facto leader of the free world.
Throughout the campaign it was easy to lose count of the number of times that the charismatic incumbent president was described as a "born leader". But is there such a thing as a natural leader, a man who at birth is blessed with the skills required to inspire others? Or is leadership a skill that can be learned later on in life? MSN talks to the experts to find out.
Can you be born a leader?
From Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela, you will often hear certain figures of authority being described as born leaders. But is there really such a thing?
"Nobody's born a leader," says Lucy George from Wordville.com. "Upbringing, experience and perhaps a talent for taking charge can influence whether any person will become a leader."
Nurture rather than nature then is the determining factor in what makes a good leader. So why do so many people continue to insist that some people are destined to lead? The problem, George tells us, is that leadership qualities often manifest at a very early age. "Leadership potential can be seen very early on as soon as you need to interact with your peers," she says. "Young children do follow the more dominant kids at school and little changes, except the playground gets swapped for the boardroom."
The fact that nobody is a natural born leader means that like any thing else, we can all learn the skills that could make us a captain of industry or even just of our football team. "Anyone can learn to be a leader," Lucy states. "Ambition is the thing that can motivate you to learn and develop your leadership skills." The trick is to know what these skills are and how to use them.
What makes a good leader?
Look at any leader, whether they’re a head of government or the head of department, and there are a few key qualities that all of them possess. "A good leader is someone who inspires rather than instructs," Lucy believes. "Empathy, vision, an ability to communicate well these all help individuals rise through the ranks to leadership."
It's not just high-minded idealism that marks your card as a general among the foot soldiers though. "A good leader needs practical qualities such as being organised, a good communicator and decisive," says business coach Barry Holmes from zoomzapp.com. "They must also be brave. The best leaders accept the consequences of getting it wrong at least half the time without blaming, complaining or excusing. Most importantly, they are always the first to get the round of drinks. No exceptions."
While dipping our hands into our pockets to buy a round is easy, the other skills are a bit harder to come by. But that doesn't mean they can't be learned.
How to be a leader at work
"You can't take charge by saying 'follow me'," George warns, "but if you set out a plan of action people are often happy to step towards the goal."
Preparation is key. Leadership isn't going to fall into your lap, so if you want to get to the front you've got to be proactive. "Volunteer when there’s an interesting project being discussed," George advises. "The quickest way to get ahead is to put your hand up when there's a job going that needs to be managed. A leader is a go-getter so get every opportunity that you can."
From a practical perspective this is something that can be easily implemented at work. Putting your hand up in itself is an act of leadership, it will show you're no sheep and give you an opportunity to take control of something outside your day-to-day routine. As well as taking on extra responsibility, you can also show your worth by contributing your opinion and ideas. If they're good, people are likely to sit up and take notice, especially if you've done some research to back them up.
A good leader also listens, especially if they want to survive the office politics that dog every workplace. "A good leader should understand the politics, but don't become political," states Holmes. "Value every suggestion from colleagues no matter how good or bad. Everyone has something to offer and it's about helping people believe they play an integral part in the workplace."
It's possible to learn the skills to become a good leader away from the workplace as well. Whether you want to be more respected by your peers or marshal your teammates on the sports field, leadership doesn't just stop when you clock off at the end of your day's work. In fact engaging your newfound leadership away from the office can help to cement the skills you've learned.
Of course, just because we can lead doesn't mean we would necessarily want to. While leading from the front sounds great at first, being in a position of power and responsibility is fraught with pressure, stress and potential pitfalls. It's why for every great leader there are a seemingly never-ending supply of bad ones. "Not everyone is cut out for leadership," explains George. "Too many managers still rely on quite aggressive behaviour to be listened to, and others spend too much time in an ivory tower without really engaging with their colleagues."
That's not to say that it doesn't have its benefits though, after all, those at the top of the pile are the ones who get the biggest pay packets. "It's not only the financial rewards that come with leadership," George says. "The best leaders have the ability to shape the world, decide strategy that can impact large numbers of people, and can influence and inspire others to deliver great work, reach their potential and develop their talents."
Money, power, respect. These are all things we associate with great leaders, and things all of us aspire to in some aspect of our lives. The good news, if you are intent on being a leader, is that you don't have to have been born with the all skills being a great leader isn't ingrained into a person's DNA. The bad news is that, if you do want to the one out in front of the followers, you'll have to work hard to fight your way to the top, and probably harder still once you get there.
So, can someone be born a leader? Almost certainly not. Far more relevent is the question of whether they want to become a leader or not.