Are Leaders Born or Made?
March 23, 2015 | Business and Careers
Are leaders born or made? This is a debate as timeless as the question “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?”
Some people think leaders are born—they naturally possess the social intelligence and charisma that motivates others to work together. Others believe that leaders are made—they build their skills with practice, experience and mentoring.
So which is it—born or made?
It turns out that both camps are right. Researchers have found that leaders come by their talents partly through genetics but mostly through hard work and persistence. In fact, one study from The Leadership Quarterly1 on heritability (that is, the innate skills you bring to the table) and human development (what you learn along the way) estimated that leadership is 24 percent genetic and 76 percent learned.
Another study, this one out of the University of Illinois, puts the value of genetics vs. learned behavior at 30 percent/70 percent. Researchers confirmed that some people are born with innate qualities that predispose them to being leaders (remember that outgoing kid in school who everyone wanted as class president, team captain or club leader?). However, even those of us who aren’t naturally gifted with leadership acumen can acquire it.
The study tracked a group of 165 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory leadership theory course. It found that leadership development follows a specific progression, which authors Dr. Kari Keating, Dr. David Rosch and Lisa Burgoon call being “ready, willing and able” to lead. To be an effective leader you first need the motivation to lead; then you need the willingness to learn the skills necessary to practice leadership; and finally, you need the opportunity to express those skills by actually leading. Dr. Rosch describes this as like a math class: “You’re not ready to do calculus if you don’t know the basics of algebra.”
Students who came to Rosch’s class with leadership readiness—meaning they already saw themselves as leaders—were able to fast-track learning and improve their leadership skills. But that didn’t mean they necessarily succeeded. “Just as a year in a cave doesn’t make you a geologist, being senior class president doesn’t make you a leader,” Rosch said in an October 6, 2014, U of I article, “Are Leaders Born or Made?”
If it takes more than a winning personality to rally people around you toward a common goal, maybe it’s time to finally put aside the debate over whether great leaders are born or made. Yes, genetics may give some people a faster start out of the gate. But as the old saying goes, “It’s not what you’ve been given but what you do with it that matters.”
Bottom line: Leadership isn’t a race; it’s a marathon that is run in stages throughout a career. It doesn’t matter how a leader comes by his or her skill. There is no such thing as a perfect leader or a one-size-fits-all way to lead. What matters is that you possess the requisite skills for the job and that you are willing to apply those skills for the benefit of those you lead. Fortunately, that’s something each of us can learn.
1 Born to lead? A twin design and genetic association study of leadership role occupancy. The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 24, Issue 1, February 2013, Pages 45-60.