Are Leaders Born or Made?

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are leaders born or made

If you believe leaders are the pure product of their natural gifts, the answer to the question rests in whether the training and personal development of a leader will cultivate and amplify what is naturally inherent in a person. Of course, how do you know what someone’s true natural skill sets are?

From the time I was born, the term “natural born leader” has been depicted in school, sports, movies, psychology training courses, military team discussions, and the general business community. As someone who does a significant amount of executive leadership development and training, I have a strong point of view on how personal development through reading, intellectual curiosity, actively working on emotional intelligence, attitude, and learning from past experiences is as much art as it is science.  

Understanding Leadership Development

Understanding Leadership Development

I have been around leadership training programs most of my adult life, stemming back to my high school through higher education programs during my time at Villanova University and being fortunate to have worked with an executive coach for myself. To be clear, I believe we have basic levels of IQs (Intelligence Quotient) and EQ (emotional quotient) that are developed over time and through intentional effort.  

When we were kids, we were told our IQ was pre-established and something that does not change. Research has challenged that notion over the years, and a scientific debate is underway on whether intelligence can be expanded.  

Regardless of what the rules and standardized tests say about our intellectual promise; regardless of what assessments say about our personality; regardless of what school systems forecast on our ability to “succeed,”; it is critically important to note measures of intelligence are more of a definition around the brain’s capacity, not an indictment on a limitation for personal development through acquiring knowledge.

Having a Desire to Lead Makes an Effective Leader

Having A Desire To Lead

Any individual with a strong desire, willingness to look inwardly at themselves, and who has a desire to be more effective can grow as a leader beyond whatever their natural gifts are! Anyone with the proper attitude can strengthen their emotional and social intelligence! Combined mental focus on increasing knowledge and strengthening EQ will undoubtedly maximize a person’s leadership potential.  

The “greatest” leaders in our history had combinations of genetics, luck (good or bad), circumstance, natural problem-solving skills, and various other experiences as precursors to their ultimate achievements and failures. The natural environment an individual is subjected to undoubtedly influences their decisions, thought processes, beliefs, and motivational triggers that form leadership styles.

Traits of an Effective Leader

Traits Of A Good Leader

Tremendous web content is available on this topic. The first article popping up when running a Google search for “greatest leaders of all time” resulted in this 15 Great Leaders of the World and their Inspiring Journey – Leverage Edu article. Interestingly, many of the research articles found talked about politicians and military strength, from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. Some will say these people were naturally inclined with traits, skills, and influential abilities before they were in leadership roles. For example, “(George) Washington had several characteristics, long before he was in a leadership position, that led naturally to his leadership style. He was known for his patience, drive, attention to detail, a strong sense of responsibility, and firm moral consciousness. All these characteristics drew people to him and contributed to their trust in him.”  

So breaking this down:

  • Is someone born with patience, or is that something developed over time? Logic suggests this is a learned behavior.  
  • Is someone’s level of drive instilled in them at birth? Certainly, we see some children at early ages who show more drive than others. We also see drive stemming from social psychology based on their surrounding environment (e.g. human behavior is undoubtedly a derivative of both personal and work experiences such as I want to be like my mom/dad or I don’t want to be like the bad boss I had).
  • Does having attention to detail come from a predetermined genetic constitution? The myth tells us left brain versus right brain people is set at birth. Yet, those who study psychology continue to find more evidence suggesting human brain patterns are developed over time. For example, see this article from Harvard Medical School Right brain/left brain, right? – Harvard Health.    
  • What shapes someone’s moral compass? Would a starving and homeless family who stole a loaf of bread be considered morally wrong? Does a billionaire who throws out uneaten bread instead of hearing the beggar on the street asking for food lack social empathy and basic morals?  

So, Are Leaders Born or Trained?

So Are Leaders Born Or Trained

If leaders are purely born and not made, it stands to reason the only leadership development people need will be to figure out how to situate themselves better to take advantage of their innate traits (e.g., charisma, social intelligence, personality, soft skills, etc.) which were inherited at childbirth. Or does a manager even need such development as the true leader will figure it out naturally?  

Unquestionably, history shows a pattern of great leaders surrounding themselves with close advisors, coaches, and others who display the courage and skill to help leaders listen to other points of view, despite their pride and ego.

If leaders are purely developed, why do our society test and reward people who score higher on standardized tests, are more athletically gifted, appear in better health, and show greater competencies in various activities? In theory, if leadership was a pure by-product of scientific formula, we could apply that formula to everyone evenly and expect equally great leaders.

As stated in one many of our past blogs, trust is a key element of leadership. If a person is a natural-born leader, then one could be said to be trustworthy or not. Ask parents if their young children ever lied to them about their conduct in some way (e.g., I did not take the cookie from the cookie jar)? Does this mean people are naturally not trustworthy? So, is trust a naturally prescribed or a learned value or behavior? 

Should Businesses Invest in Leadership Development?

Invest In Leadership Development

This question boils down to the following:

  • What training and programs or executive coaching efforts should and could an organization invest in to amplify the natural-born strengths of people in leadership roles?
  • What can leaders learn that does not come naturally to them?

Development is both a choice and an experience. Grade school and higher education are common forms of development for many, along with everyday work and personal life experiences that naturally occur.

If you are a C-suite executive or a high-potential performer whose job success will be in part dependent on creating followers; then understanding how to effectively help your team’s decision making will be limited both by your collective capability on the one hand and avoid the trap of suggesting because you are in a position of authority and possess particular expertise within your industry you no longer need to challenge yourself.  

Certainly, planning, effort, and perseverance will help leaders achieve more, better solve problems, and will further an organization. That said, success can be a funny and elusive construct. An organization can have a goal of going from 1 to 100 (dollars, people, whatever) in a year, and if they achieve 120, that sounds like success. However, what if they could have reached 140 simply by you being a more effective leader? Were they successful? 

Whether someone is an extrovert or introvert, shows great vision or is short-sighted, displays great charisma and personality, or has social intelligence limitations, they can improve. Not understanding and actively working on potential blind spots and hidden opportunities will become an ultimate limitation to the success one can truly achieve.  

While some web content enjoys creating inspiration from the concept of natural-born leaders, while movies and folklore capitalize on this notion for entertainment and storytelling, it is clear enhancing an individual’s leadership characteristics and qualities through development is the most successful way of creating strong leaders. 

How We Can Help

Executive Coach To Challenge Mindset

Self-awareness is a choice, not a natural disposition. At Strategy People Culture, our mission is to foster better awareness for people and businesses. If we can be of help, please get in touch with us at info@strategypeopleculture.com or by calling (833) ROCK – SPC (833-762-5772) for a free consultation and see how we can help.

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Andy Botwin

Andrew (or Andy) founded Strategy People Culture, LLC in 2012 with a passion for working with the interconnectivity between people and business and the fundamental beliefs in the symbiotic relationship between the advancement and success of both people and business.