Are Leaders Born or Made?’ Is an Age-Old Question — And We've Finally Got the Answer

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
April 19, 2024 at 2:24AM UTC

Are leaders born or made? That’s the age-old question. 

There has been plenty of research on the topic of leadership that attempts to answer it, with arguments and evidence on both sides. Were great leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr., born with their gifts, or did experiences and learning shape their leadership abilities? Learn about the arguments and what qualities are necessary for effective leadership.

Definition of a leader

There are many definitions of leadership. Ultimately, leadership involves motivating, inspiring, influencing, engaging and directing people toward an established outcome, especially fulfilling a specific purpose.

A leader is different from a manager, who oversees people and responsibilities. Manager is generally a formal title, while anyone can effectually be a leader, regardless of the designation.

Leaders are made

There is plenty of research that supports the idea that anyone can work toward developing leadership skills, provided they actually invest effort, practicing and honing it like any other talent. Some of the most persuasive evidence and arguments on the subject are:

1. Leaders must adapt.

According to a study entitled “The Psychological and Neurological Bases of Leader Self-Complexity and Effects on Adaptive Decision-Making” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, leaders are often placed in “complex situations” and must be able to adapt and make decisions accordingly. However, the authors note that there is little agreement about what makes someone capable of adapting. The ability to adapt cannot be an innate quality but one that is learned and nurtured through different experiences and contexts. 

2. There are many different types of leaders. 

Autocratic, transformational, charismatic, supportive...these are all accepted styles of leadership. And effective leaders possess different qualities and skill sets, with no one leader identical to another. Because there are so many types of leadership and ways people lead, it is impossible to suggest that someone must be born fitting into a very particular mold, when the very definition of what a leader is is highly variable. 

3. Leadership is a learned and acquired skill.

No one is borning knowing how to play the piano. Some people are quicker studies than others, though. This is true of leadership, too. 

Faculty at the University of Illinois drew on previous research that found that 30 percent of leadership is drawn from genetics, while 70 percent is due to learned behavior, to suggest that leadership skills can be cultivated in an environment that is conducive to its development — which isn’t the same thing as simply being placed into a leadership role.

Leaders are born

Admittedly fewer people argue that leaders are born rather than made nowadays. However, there is still some evidence to suggest that there are innate qualities that make some people more inclined toward — and better at — being leaders than others, as well as historical views on the subject. They are:

1. The Great Man Theory.

The Great Man Theory is one of the earliest theories of leadership, tracing back to the 19th century, and hypothesizes that leaders are born and not made; in other words, it suggests that people have innate characteristics and attributes that lend themselves to leadership, while others simply do not. Historian Thomas Carlyle was a great believer in this theory; he suggested that history is a compilation of great men or “heroes.”

2. The 30 percent/70 percent study.

The same University of Illinois study that found that leadership is mostly learned also acknowledged that some people do possess qualities that make them more inclined to be leaders than others. The study, which assessed 165 Illinois undergraduate students enrolled in a leadership theory course, found that people must be “ready, willing and able” to be leaders. Still, the authors noted that much of leadership comes from skills that can be acquired.

3. Twin studies.

There have been several studies of twins that found a genetic component to leadership quality, such as “Nature vs nurture: are leaders born or made? A behavior genetic investigation of leadership style,” published in Twin Res. These studies, too, are consistent with the research suggesting that leadership is 30 percent genetically-based. 

8 traits all good leaders have

Whether leaders are born or made, there are some qualities that are necessary for effective leadership no matter how the talent came to be. Here are just some of the important traits.

1. Passion

A leader must be passionate about the cause she’s championing, whether it’s a work initiative, government bill, or fundraiser. She must truly believe in the mission of the cause in order to lead effectively.

2. Perception

Leaders need to be keenly aware of issues and dynamics. This enables them to nip problems in the bud before they start, as well as understand how a team is functioning. Leaders should also understand how others view them and their role, soliciting feedback for improvement.

3. Ambition

In order to lead, someone needs to want to succeed. That involves both believing in the mission of the cause and her own value and contribution to it.

4. Adaptability

Things rarely happen according to plan, and a leader must adapt accordingly to keep an initiative or project from derailing when the unexpected happens. She must also help her team adapt and move forward. 

5. Humility

Humility and confidence can coexist. This means recognizing and acknowledging one’s areas of weaknesses while still embracing her strengths. As a leader, it’s essential to realize that these imperfections and look to the bigger picture — as well as accept that a specific goal or mission isn’t about you but rather the initiative.

6. Supportiveness and compassion

A good leader cares about the people who are working with her toward a common goal. After all, this goal isn’t about one person but something larger than everyone. It’s important to recognize and show appreciation and support for team members.

7. Authenticity

You can’t be fake and lead effectively. You must genuinely care about what and whom you are leading and show your true self. People can see through a lack of genuineness, and no one will be willing to follow an inauthentic leader.

8. Willingness to take risks

People who play it safe don’t get very far. Great leaders are bold risk-takers who understand the importance of trying something new, even if they fail — which many do. Success only comes to those who challenge themselves and accept that they will sometimes fail.

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