People often ask, ‘Are leaders born or made?’ It is a classic nature vs. nurture quandary. And, you will find people who are firmly entrenched in one camp or the other. But what does the evidence say?
Are Leaders Born or Made? The Born Camp
We are not all born with the same ability to lead any more than we can all sing like Luciano Pavarotti or play soccer like David Beckham.
Leaders are not like other people. For example, Richard Branson, Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King were naturally gifted leaders.
When asked, many leaders who are valued for their leadership by others, are not able to explain what makes them stand out. Therefore, real leadership depends, for a large part, on one’s natural abilities.
Research1 shows that people with certain traits are more likely to be given leadership roles. And, they tend to be more effective in those roles. Two such traits are:
And, I am an introvert.
More recent research2 focuses on identical twins. It confirms the important role that genetics play in determining who will become successful leaders.
When it comes to answering the question, ‘Are leaders born or made?’, there is considerable evidence supporting the born camp.
Are Leaders Born or Made? The Made Camp
Other people believe that great leaders are born and not made. They see leadership as a set of behaviors that anyone can learn.
Warren Buffet is a respected CEO and is known as the oracle of Omaha. He firmly believes that leadership consists of learnable behaviors.
Outstanding leaders are the product of hard work and development over time.
There is ample evidence3 that you can learn to be a better leader. And, there is some evidence4 that traits matter less than what most people think.
Furthermore, there is also some research5 which suggests that you can have too much of a good thing. For example, intelligence is helpful, but not when there is a large gap between your intelligence and that of your followers.
Are Leaders Born or Made? The Verdict
So, the question remains, ‘Are leaders born or made?’ The honest answer is both.
We are all born with abilities, traits and inclinations that can help or hinder our leadership. Yet, you can also learn new behaviors, skills and habits that will help you to lead well.
The characteristics described in Qualities of a Good Leader reflect this blend of nature and nurture.
The answer to our original question, ‘Are leaders born or made?’ has one important implication. Learning to lead is challenging.
First, you have large amounts of advice that is not based on any evidence. Then you have research papers that fail to give any practical advice. Hence, practical, evidence-based advice is in demand.
Finally, you not only need to know what to do. You also need to do what you know. And, you need to do so skilfully and habitually. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to master a new skill. And even longer to change your habitual behavior. For example, deliberate practice accounts6 for 80% of the difference between:
- Elite musicians
- Talented amateurs
Download the research footnotes for this article.