Those who study leadership and what it takes to be a successful leader often debate a key underlying question in trying to understand how to get there: Are the best leaders born or made?
A 2006 study of the question used identical twins as a basis, finding that genetic factors translated into leadership that about a third of us are born with. That suggests that the vast majority of leadership traits are actually acquired. In other words, leaders are both born and made – but, mainly made.
Toronto management consultant Bradley Fauteux points out that adhering to the “born” school of thought can be problematic. “Say you’re a senior executive who believes qualities that have led to your success are inherent,” Brad Fauteux says. “You may well fall down on the job of nurturing your own personal development, never mind the latent talents of others.
“Plus, expecting that your natural abilities – and those of your management team – will naturally emerge may be optimistic. And that doesn’t necessarily serve the long-term success of the organization.”
Another drawback to this way of thinking, adds consultant Ronald E. Riggio, PhD., is that it can result in leadership development programs being cut, especially in down economies. The problem, he says, is that it’s usually more cost-effective to grow your future leaders in-house, so there’s a long-term price paid.
But, educator Connson Chow Locke, PhD, says what’s more important is understanding how well an individual will perform in a leadership position. And since that hinges on context, the type of job and the person’s ability to develop leadership skills, success can’t be predicted by their traits — inborn or acquired.
Still, where they come down on the born or made question can influence how leaders themselves walk the talk, both in their own behaviors and in cultivating the skills and talents of others.
The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study of 360 global leaders on the issue and found that it’s not just on the development front where the question plays a role. Attitudes of senior management also influence how people are recruited and promoted. In today’s environment, building that leadership bench strength is an important priority, so insights into who lands where on the “born” versus “made” can shape the organization’s strategies for both boosting natural abilities and creating new skills.
Interestingly enough, the study showed distinct differences in how the “borns” and “mades” define leadership. In describing images conveying leadership, for example, the former group used descriptors like “leading by example” and “leading the way”, while the latter focused more on words like “inspiring,” “integrity,” and “acting as a mentor.”
Not only does this suggest that “borns” are more authority focused and “mades” more other focused, but it trickled down into other beliefs on effective management styles. Both, the study found, ranked pay and relationships with others as important to leaders. But, in keeping with this group’s other focus, the “mades” are more likely to believe it’s important for leaders to make the world a better place, serve society and contribute to humanity.
However you look at the issue, balancing both perspectives is what’s going to serve the organization and future leaders best.
Brad Fauteux reflects: “There are certain intrinsic qualities that make the best leaders suited for greatness – deep honesty, moral vision, compassion and care. By the same token, leadership training is a multi-billion industry that has thrived by helping people develop critical learned skill sets and activities over time.
“For the best of all worlds, both schools of thought should be embraced if those with the highest levels of potential are going to grow into tomorrow’s leadership roles.”