Are leaders born or made? It’s an age-old question that was recently asked anew at the ASTD Leadership Special Interest Group’s Ask a Leader panel. C2’s CEO, Dolly Oberoi, was one of five panelists representing private sector, Government, and education who provided unique insights on this and other questions about leadership.
The consensus among panelists was that leadership skills can be taught and that even the best leaders should be working to improve and grow as leaders. Panelists agreed that what cannot be taught, what must be innate, are the passion and drive that compels truly great leaders to go above and beyond what others are willing to do—to take on the tough challenges, to work the extra hours, to be there for every one of their people.
Dolly pointed out that leadership is situational and what works in one situation may not work in another. She told of her own personal experience working in a formal, hierarchical institution whose culture was at odds with her nonconformist values and servant leadership philosophy. Although she rose to a leadership position, she may have achieved even more had her personal values been aligned with those of the organization.
Ron Taylor of the Ron Taylor Group suggested that some individuals cannot be “made” into leaders despite their best efforts, because they struggle with too many personal demons that interfere with leading others.
Dr. Virginia Minshew, principal of Park View High School in Sterling, VA, pointed out that one of the most important qualities of great leadership is the ability to focus on others rather than on oneself. While this quality can be enhanced with some effort, it tends to begin as an innate personality trait.
Jack O’Connor, recently retired Chief Learning Officer of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, agreed, saying that some people never develop that strong sense of obligation to other people that is necessary for successful leadership. Jack also emphasized the importance of self-awareness: Leaders must be able both to act and to think about their actions as they lead other people. He noted that most leaders have to work at that, with help from others.
Kriste Jordan from the Transportation Security Administration warned against false dichotomies (for example, nature vs. nurture) and provided a powerful rebuttal to “borners” by suggesting that leaders have a moral imperative to continue to grow and develop their leadership skills and to assist and encourage others to do the same.
What the Science Says
Recent research confirms that at least some aspects of leadership are innate. In a recent issue of Leadership Quarterly, scientists identified a specific genetic sequence associated with the tendency to occupy a leadership position. They estimate that approximately 24% of the observed variation in leadership traits among individuals is genetic. The scientists emphasized, however, that leadership remains a skill that must be developed intentionally.
In Psychology Today, Dr. Ronald E. Riggio argued that the question of born vs. made is itself dangerous, because those who believe leadership is an innate trait will not devote the necessary time or resources to developing leadership capabilities in themselves or others.
At C2, we see leadership as a continuum with born leaders and “nonleaders” at the extreme ends.
Most people fall somewhere in the middle and can work to improve their leadership capabilities with the right tools and learning experiences. At C2, we provide those tools and learning experiences to help leaders continue to grow.
In 2012, the Center for Creative Leadership asked the Born vs. Made question of 361 senior leaders in organizations around the world. They found that 19.1% of leaders think that leadership is an innate trait, 52.4% said that leaders were made, and 28.5% said that leadership is a combination of both. They emphasized that a leader’s perspective on this question says a lot about how that person will lead and how he/she will approach leadership development.
What is your perspective on the question of whether leaders are born or made?
(Many thanks to Laurie Carrigan of Didlake for her contributions to this article.)