The debate about whether leaders are born or made has been a topic of discussion for many, many years…
Some argue that leadership qualities are innate and cannot be taught, while others believe that anyone can develop the skills necessary to become an effective leader.
From the genetic and biological factors that may contribute to leadership ability, to the training programs and development opportunities that can help individuals improve their leadership skills – like our management training – this guide will provide a comprehensive look at the “leaders are born, not made” debate.
Let’s jump right in!
Let’s begin with the first assertion that leaders are bone, not made.
Which theory assumes that leaders are born and not made? Two hypotheses contribute to this idea: The Great Man Theory and Trait Theory.
Much of the work on the Great Man Theory took place during the 19th century by Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle said that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” In his view, leaders are inherently gifted with specific qualities that help them make an impression on the masses.
The Great Man Theory also suggests that those who hold positions of power deserve them because they’ve been endowed with unique gifts and traits. It implies that all great leaders share specific characteristics, regardless of when or where they lived.
According to Trait Theory, leaders are born, not made.
The Trait Theory of leadership builds upon Carlyle’s early work. This theory suggests that leaders have certain inborn traits and innate characteristics that qualify them for their role. Their ability to lead comes from a combination of personality, physical, and intelligence traits.
The assumption behind Trait Theory is that if one can find people who possess the right traits, that person can improve an organisation’s performance and bring it closer to achieving specific objectives.
Some scientific research lends credence to the idea that leaders are born and not made. For example, numerous twin studies suggest that excellent leadership has a significant genetic basis.
One study specifically showed a link between leadership role occupancy and the rs4950 genetic marker. This single nucleotide polymorphism is found on the neuronal acetylcholine receptor gene, which is associated with personality traits.
Researchers suggest that those who possess this particular genetic marker are more likely to be successful and effective leaders.
The most influential leaders generally have an above-average level of intelligence. While anyone can gain intelligence through study and dedication, some research has also revealed that, to a certain extent, intelligence levels are inherited.
A group of Glasgow-based researchers interviewed 12,686 people aged 14022 every year from 1994 onward. Although the researchers took into account factors like education, race, and socioeconomic status, they found that the best predictor of intelligence among all subjects was their mother’s IQ.
It’s important to note, though, that scientists believe only 40-60 percent of intelligence is hereditary. The environment (school attendance, exposure to books and other learning materials, etc.) still plays a significant factor in one’s overall IQ.
Like intelligence, research suggests that psychological attributes are also partially heritable. Several personality traits can potentially be inherited from one’s parents, including the “Big Five,” which have an above-average level of heritability.
The Big Five traits are described as follows:
Of course, one’s environment also plays a role in the development of these personality traits. However, genetic contributions cannot be ignored.
Some research also links the likelihood of becoming a leader to one’s geographic location. For example, a study conducted by SHL, a UK-based talent management firm, showed that Hong Kong currently has the most significant number of leaders. However, Mexico has the greatest number of future leaders.
The firm reviewed data from over one million client surveys and focused on eight skills to measure people’s leadership capacity:
Based on these criteria, Hong Kong has the highest number of people with strength across all eight categories, followed by Germany, the UK, Australia, and the United States. As for countries with the most future leaders, Mexico led the charge, followed by Turkey, Egypt, Switzerland, and Brazil.
Being born in a particular country may not automatically guarantee that someone will become a great leader. However, they may have access to resources that increase their chances, such as better school systems or more support from parents and other adults.
Many notable leaders throughout history possessed traits that seem to have made them natural leaders.
Some examples include Queen Boudica, a fierce warrior who faced the might of the Roman empire, King Henry VIII, who broke from the Catholic church and started the Protestant church, and Queen Victoria, the second-longest reigning monarch in British history.
These people are all known for their leadership skills and willingness to do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals. They likely inherited at least some of the genes and personality traits discussed above that are linked to substantial leadership abilities — especially since, during the times when they lived, they did not have the same access to learning resources as modern leaders do.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people argue that leaders are made rather than born. In other words, with the proper training and amount of dedication, anyone can become a leader regardless of their genetic background.
For example, the Behavioural theory of leadership is based on the idea that leaders can develop a set of skills and practise specific behaviours that make them suited for the role, regardless of their natural traits and tendencies.
This theory also posits that outstanding leadership requires lifelong learning and commitment. The best leaders will continuously seek out development opportunities that help them grow and progress rather than relying on their natural abilities and inherited characteristics.
Several leadership styles fall under the Behavioural leadership theory, including the following:
Those who believe in the Behavioral leadership theory typically argue that leaders can develop the traits associated with these and other effective leadership styles.
One can learn to be an effective communicator, for example, or to build strong relationships with their colleagues. Even if they’re shy or more introverted, they still have the potential to excel in their role and help others achieve their goals.
Consider the number of leadership books, courses, podcasts, YouTube videos, and other resources that are available today. The strength and expansiveness of the leadership industry also back up the idea that leaders can be made instead of born.
Research from K. Anders Ericsson suggests that deliberate practice is one of the most critical factors in someone mastering any skill — including the skills needed to become a great leader. Ericsson’s research evaluated elite and amateur musicians and revealed that deliberate practice was responsible for an astounding 80 per cent of the difference in outcomes between the two groups.
With this information in mind, it’s understandable that so many personal and professional development resources exist to train a new generation of influential leaders.
Every year, corporations across the globe spend billions of dollars on leadership development courses and activities. These investments are meant to contribute to individual and group growth, helping the organisation thrive and become more profitable.
Admittedly, professionals have mixed views on the effectiveness of leadership training. Some find it highly worthwhile, while others question its long-term impact. However, the fact that new resources are continuously released suggests that they have had at least some positive effects.
For those who believe in the idea that leaders are made rather than born, it makes sense that every great leader would have to start as a follower.
Suppose someone starts in the follower or subordinate role. In that case, they will likely have more empathy and genuine concern for their team members when they eventually rise and take on a leadership position.
At one point, they were in the same place as their current subordinates. Because of their history, they understand the challenges of the job and know what kind of leadership they would have liked to have when they were a follower.
Starting as a follower, rather than immediately being thrust into a leadership position, also creates more opportunities for learning and growth.
Many professionals believe that effective leadership comes from continuously facing and overcoming obstacles. If one has never done this, they might struggle to cope with the challenges of leadership — even if they have the genetic predisposition to be a great leader.
An enthusiastic and passionate leader – even someone who doesn’t have the ideal genes or personality traits for the job – will likely do a better job at motivating employees compared to someone who lacks passion and drive.
As the study from Ericsson suggests, deliberate practice plays a crucial role in one’s success in many areas, including leadership.
After all, who is likely to put in the deliberate practice needed to be a good leader?
In most cases, it’s probably the person who has a genuine passion for the job and truly wants to help the business or organisation succeed long-term. Their deliberate effort may lead to ongoing study and an openness to new views — both of which can make them more effective managers or directors.
In some situations, passion and purpose may make up for lack of natural ability (or at least help to fill in the gaps). If someone is truly committed to a cause and wants to be successful, they will put in the work and invest time and resources to become better leaders – including participating in self-development and leadership/management training courses.
The professional sphere is constantly changing, and it’s essential to stay informed about these changes if one wants to succeed and be an effective leader. Natural abilities often aren’t sufficient in such a fast-paced world.
Imagine two people: One who has a natural talent for leadership and one who lacks innate abilities but does have a passion for a specific cause and is committed to their purpose.
The second person’s passion and commitment may motivate them to continue learning and expanding their skills. They understand that they have room to grow and are willing to do the work to make that happen.
On the other hand, the first person may try to rest on their laurels (i.e., their inherited traits that make them a competent leader) and won’t take time to learn about the latest developments in leadership research or discover ways to help their team grow and thrive.
In this example, the person with less natural ability but passion and commitment will likely be the better leader. Because they are dedicated to personal development and want to grow, they’ll have an easier time keeping up with changes and giving team members the support they need to succeed in their own roles.
If you need some inspiration for mapping out your development and vision for the future, take a look at our 3 Steps To Create A Professional Development Plan.
Many prominent figures throughout history rose to great power and success despite humble beginnings and a lack of impressive parental pedigree. These people, in many cases, had to rely on their passion, drive, and commitment to learning to achieve leadership roles and make a positive impact on the world.
Some historical examples of effective self-made leaders include Dame Stephanie Shirley, who came to the UK at age five on the Kindertransport (an organised rescue effort that took children (without their parents) out of Nazi-controlled territory during World War II) and Margaret Thatcher, who was born in a small market town to parents who ran a grocery store but eventually became Britain’s first female Prime Minister (and held the position for 12 years).
These individuals had to overcome significant obstacles to reach their leadership positions. While they likely had some natural leadership abilities and promising personality traits, if they weren’t also willing to learn and put forth the effort to develop skills, it’s unlikely they would have been as successful as they ended up being.
Now that you know which leadership theory suggests that leaders are born, not made — and which theory suggests leaders are made and not born — what do you think the verdict is? Are great leaders born, or are they made?
There is no one clear answer to this question…
Research certainly suggests that there is a genetic component to effective leadership. Those who possess certain personality traits (such as a high level of extroversion, a high level of conscientiousness, and a low level of neuroticism) may be more naturally drawn to leadership positions. People may also be more drawn to these individuals and encourage them to take on leadership roles, even if they don’t have a natural desire themselves.
At the same time, even research backing up the idea that genetics contribute to one’s leadership potential acknowledges that one’s genes are not the end-all-be-all. Other factors, such as drive, passion, and a willingness to learn, can also make up for personality “deficits” or a lack of natural ability and give someone the skills they need to lead a team or organisation effectively.
These days, it may be more possible than ever for great leaders to be made instead of born, too.
Numerous leadership training courses and resources exist to help people sharpen their skills, communicate more effectively, and support their teams in achieving their goals. People have broadened their idea of what makes a leader as well and are more willing to accept varying personality types.
The short answer to the question “Are leaders born or made?” seems to be “Both.” Some people may have a natural propensity for leadership. However, even those who are born to lead can still benefit from leadership training!
Updated on: 24 August, 2023
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