Are Leaders Born or Made


Insights and commentary. Are leaders born or grown?

The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born—that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born. ”

Warren Bennis, American scholar, organizational consultant, and author

Years ago, when I attended the United States Air Force Academy many cadets attended who had previous leadership experience both in high school and outside of the school.  The Academy and later on through experience in the Air Force helped further mold that -- we learned not only leadership theories but also practical application, feedback loops, mentorship, etc.  It is surprising to see how many studies are done on leadership, its theories, and practical application.

Are Leaders Born or Made?

I was chatting with an amazingly sharp, young leader.   He mentioned to me that he lacked some of the people management skills that older people who had kids would have.  I responded that we're all a product of our experiences ... and I'm sure parenting is a contributor to being a good leader, but not the driving factor.  I mentioned that my belief was that through a combination of trial and error (we all learn from mistakes) in managing people, and learning from other leaders / mentorship we form our own leadership styles. 

From other bosses I've had, I've learned what works well and not so well.   Would I want to do that again or did that work well?  Either yes or no its an incremental step to becoming a better leader.  

We also all have that one (or many) experience of a bad leader.  I had one boss who constantly micromanaged.  Her style was one of distrust and always wanted to make all decisions.  This was extremely frustrating.  

Never Tell People How To Do Things, Tell Them What To Do
And They Will Surprise You With Their Ingenuity
General George S Patton

And focus on providing high-level direction or expected outcomes ... then depending on the experience and skills of the person I would provide some ideas or concepts or additional direction (always depending).  The less experience, I may provide some additional coaching along the way to ensure their success and learning.  I avoid saying this is the "best way" but it is a "way that worked well for me".  This helps everyone grow.

Are Leaders Born (or made)?

Scientists say that there are some genetic fingerprints that may contribute to a person being a good leader.  We've heard that First Born children tend to be more leaders than those that are not.  As of this writing, there are over 657 million google search results for "are leaders born or made".  Fortunately there have been quite a few studies on this topic.  Some of them are focused on twins.  According to a study completed in 2016 (1), it starts with a foundation of a few thing: 

  1. There is not a standard today of what great leadership is.  There are many different types of leadership.
  2. The Great Man Theory, established in 1840 theorizes that people are born with leadership skills
  3. Many organizations invest time and money in trying to improve leadership skills.  Assuming that skills can be taught.

From the evidence and studies of twins.  A few things emerge:

  1. Genetic traits comprise approximately 30% of the contributor of a leader and can lay the groundwork for good leadership skills if they are fostered throughout their lives.
  2. Genetic though is not a primary leadership driver -- for example, people who are considered amazing leaders do not often have other great leaders in their family lines.
  3. The other 70% of contributing factors of great leadership are environmental -- nurturing, training, learning, enhancing.

Are Leaders Made (or born)?

The Air Force Academy called itself a leadership lab.  A place to learn and apply, and continually improve leadership skills.  Cadets would take on leadership roles at the academy, and periodically receive mentorship from experienced leaders.  We would study leadership theory and understand practical application.  Of course this only sets us on a good path but we (as leaders) have to constantly hone and improve our leadership styles.  

It remains generally accepted that though genetics may play a small role into leadership, it is the people who constantly grow their leadership style and traits become the best leaders.

Growing your personal leadership style

If you look at your personal leadership style, you have likely changed, molded, and shifted your style over time.  You've seen good and bad leaders - and you place into your personal leadership toolkit those qualities that work well, and those you don't want to emulate (like the micromanagement I experienced above)..  You've read leadership articles to continue to hone your abilities.

At BornLeadership we believe that the Best Leaders are Always Learning.  But if you were to narrow down some of the core leadership traits, what would those be?  Though the traits are extensive, here are a few we believe are critical:

  1. Ownership - accepting responsibility
  2. Ability to listen -- really listen.  Your ideas may be good, but maybe there are better ones.  
  3. Desire to grow and learn
  4. Demonstrating the core attributes of how you want others to act
  5. Setting a real, achievable vision 

For quotes related to this article, see: Are Leaders Born or Made , Articles on Born Leadership  and Born Leader Quotes

What do you think: Are Leaders Born or Made?

References: 

  1. Point/Counterpoint: Are Outstanding Leaders Born or Made?: National Institute of Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5423074/
  2. 5 Reasons Why Leaders are Made not Born:  HRZone: https://www.hrzone.com/community/blogs/engage-in-learning/5-reasons-why-leaders-are-made-not-born
  3. Leaders:  Born or Made?  Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/200903/leaders-born-or-made
  4. Are Leaders Born or Made:  Center for Creative Leadership.  https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/are-leaders-born-or-made-perspectives-from-the-executive-suite/
 

The bottom line is that it takes focus, hard work, and an a curiousity of ongoing learning to continue to become a better leader.  We do believe that the best leaders are always learning.  So, are leaders born or made?  The answer: the best leaders are self made.

 
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