Nature (our DNA) and nurture (environmental influences) both need to be taken into consideration when trying to understand how a leader is formed. The way I like to look at whether leaders are Born or Made, is by looking at leadership capability through the concept of a bell-curve.
At the bottom of the curve, there are ~10% of people that will struggle, no matter how hard they try, to be a good leader. Their DNA is just not wired to lead and every amount of training is unlikely to get them to a position where they can lead effectively. On the top of the bell curve are the ~10% of people who are born to lead. They are born with an innate instinct to lead. As they grow and develop they tend to continue getting better and better.
The other ~80% of people in the middle have the potential to be good leaders, if not great leaders. They have to be prepared to work really hard on their leadership skills, especially self-awareness. This involves learning how to take a ‘birds-eye-view’ of yourself, be open to asking for feedback and developing great listening skills.
However, I do believe that the world’s most exceptional visionary leaders are highly likely to only come from the ~10% of people who are born leaders.
To try and understand some of the discussion points around whether leaders are born or made, let’s look at some of the theories and evidence that support either side of the coin or both sides.
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. They are the one who gets the people to do the greatest things.”
Ronald Reagan (Adapted)
According to the Great Man Theory, popularised in the 1840’s by Thomas Carlyle and Trait Theory, people inherit certain qualities and traits, which are aligned with leadership. People are born with different qualities that predispose them to be a leader, which is similar to someone who with the natural qualities of a gifted musician or talented athlete. They will naturally excel and thrive when confronted with the appropriate situations, whereas other people will struggle. The most exceptional leaders, don’t become overnight successes, they were leaders from the onset.
Behavioural Theories emphasise that the process of teaching, learning and observation allow people to become leaders. They believe the concept of leadership is something that can be learnt, like a skill through training, practice, perception and making observations over a period of time. But, to what level can a person achieve, from a leadership point of view, if they don’t have the natural charisma, ability to influence, natural integrity, and ability to motivate and inspire?
“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”
Some people are very good leaders in certain environments, but not others. They may lead well when they know and trust a small team they are working with, whereas they struggle in a larger team of people they don’t know so well. Even exceptional leaders are only effective when they are in specific locations or environments, for example they could be in a family, societal, community, national, or global environment.
Leaders, sometimes, don’t always stand out from the crowd. They are the quiet achievers, who have an uncanny ability lead people away from the limelight and in a very subtle way. Their quiet, softly spoken and under-the-radar approach may have a profound effect on the way people behave, how they perform and decisions they make.
“Leadership is not magnetic personality – that could just as well be a glib tongue. It is not ‘making friends and influencing people’, that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”
There are bodies of research that imply that 30% of leadership is genetic and 70% is learned. Although the percentage of genetic versus learned is likely to vary quite a lot between individual leaders, but it still implies that there is a major learning component to leadership.
Many leaders, tend to have an extroversion trait. They also tend to have high levels of empathy as well as social and emotional intelligence, whereas IQ is not always an important characteristic for a leader. As I discussed earlier, introverts can also be great leaders.
“Leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices. Leadership is not something mystical and ethereal that cannot be understood by ordinary people. Given the opportunity for feedback and practice, those with the desire and persistence to lead can substantially improve their abilities to do so.”
JAMES KOUZES & BARRY POSNER
Great leaders tend to be in constant growth, as they aim to improve every day. They tend to seek new experiences and a greater understanding of themselves.
People who are adjusted, social, ambitious and curious are more likely to become leaders. Their curious nature leads them to learn through mediums such as books, informal training from coaches or mentors, interpretations of life experiences, websites, observations, listening and formal training in an academic type setting.
“The leader must be able to know what followers want, when they want it, and what prevents them from getting what they want.”
Leadership is a reflection of who you are and how you want to improve the world for the better. No matter whether leaders have come from a background of hardship and personal struggles or they have endured leadership through an abundance of resources, everyone can continue to develop their leadership skills through deliberate practice and experience.
Developing as a leader is no different to any other expert, where they grow through deliberate practice, struggle, sacrifice, hard work, and regular self-assessment.
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