Are leaders born or made?

For centuries people have debated whether leaders are born or made.  Several decades ago researchers started trying to answer the question.  The debate goes on, even though we know the answer.

It turns out to be a little of both. Leaders are sort of born and they're always made. Knowing the details will help you develop effective leaders for your company.

Leaders are Sort of Born

It seems like there's only one thing that a person needs to actually be born with in order to be a leader later in life.  That's intelligence.  A leader needs to be smart enough.

Effective leaders aren't necessarily the smartest people in the room or the company or even on the team.  But they have to be smart enough to do the job they're assigned.

What's more important is what kind of person the potential leader is when he or she becomes an adult. The person who emerges from adolescence into young adulthood has the psychological and character traits they'll demonstrate for the rest of their life.  Some of those matter for leadership.

By the time a person becomes an adult we can tell if they can help other people achieve results.  That, after all, is what we expect leaders to do.  We expect them to achieve success through a group.  We expect them to help their subordinates grow and develop.

By the time a person becomes an adult, we can tell if they want to achieve objectives or if they just want to go along and take it easy.  We expect leaders to be responsible for achieving results.  You can have a marvelous life without a results focus, but if you're going to lead successfully you have to have the drive and willingness to be measured by the results of your leadership.

By the time a person becomes an adult, we can tell if they are willing to make decisions or not.  Lots of people wake up every day and let the world happen to them.  But leaders must be able and willing to make decisions that affect themselves and others.

By the time a person becomes an adult we can tell if they have the basic qualities that we expect leaders to have.  We can determine if they're smart enough to do the job. We can tell if they are willing to help others to achieve results as a group.  And we can tell if they will make decisions.

Those things are essential. People who have them can learn the multiple skills it takes for them to become effective leaders.

No matter how they measure up on the key essentials, no one emerges from the womb or from adolescence with all the skills in place to be an effective leader.  Everybody has to learn the job.  That's why leaders are always made.

Leaders are Always Made

Leadership can be learned by anyone with the basics.  But an awful lot of leadership cannot be taught.

That's because leadership is an apprentice trade.  Leaders learn about 80 percent of their craft on the job. 

They learn from watching other leaders and emulating their behavior. They choose role models and seek out mentors.  They ask other leaders about how to handle situations.

Leaders improve by getting feedback and using it.  The best leaders seek feedback from their boss, their peers and their subordinates.  Then they modify their behavior so that they get better results.

Leaders learn by trying things out and then critiquing their performance. The only failure they recognize is the failure to learn from experience.

In their book, Geeks and Geezers, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas identify the special power of what they call "crucibles." These are trials which teach hard lessons that leaders use as the basis of their strength in later crises. Many of these events can be called "failures," but leaders turn the bad situation to good by learning from it.

Effective leaders take control of their own development. They seek out training opportunities that will make a difference that will make a difference in their performance.

Effective leaders look for training programs that will help them develop specific skills that they can use on the job.  Then, they when they return to work, they devote specific, deliberate effort to mastering in real life what they learned in the classroom.

Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan studied the progress of 88,000 managers who had been to leadership development training. The people who returned from the training, talked about it, and did deliberate work to apply their learning were judged as becoming more effective leaders.  The ones who didn't showed no improvement.

If you're responsible for leadership development for your company, you should structure your support for your leaders to recognize that most leadership learning happens on the job. Help people develop leadership development plans.  Help them select specific skills training and then work on transferring skills from the training to the job.  Help them find role models, mentors and peers to discuss leadership issues.

Help your leaders get feedback from their boss, peers and subordinates.  Work to create the culture of candor that will make that feedback helpful and effective.

Don't stop there.  Make sure that you evaluate your leaders on their leadership work.  Reward them and hold them accountable for accomplishing the mission through the group.  And hold them accountable for caring for their people and helping them grow and develop.

A Leader's Growth is Never Done

Leadership learning is a lifetime activity. You're never done because there's always more to learn. There are always skills you need to improve.

Effective leaders seek out development opportunities that will help them learn new skills.  Those might be project assignments or job changes.  What they have in common is that the leader develops knowledge and skills that can be used elsewhere.

Effective leaders also seek out opportunities that will increase their visibility.  The fact is that great performance alone will not propel you to the top in your career.  You also have to be visible to people who make decisions about promotions and assignments.

If you're responsible for developing leaders in your company, set up programs to give your leaders both kinds of development opportunities over the course of their careers. 

There's no magic formula for developing quality leaders in your company.  But if you select potential leaders with the essential traits, then support them with training, feedback, on-the-job learning and development experiences and hold them accountable for results, you'll have the leaders you need to shape your company's future.

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Wally Bock has helped people learn to be great bosses for more than a quarter century. His latest book, Performance Talk: The One-on-One Part of Leadership, makes learning key leadership principles almost effortless by teaching through a story and providing lists of resources for further growth.

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What did you think of this article?

  • 6/25/2007 7:29 AM Management Professor Notes II wrote:
    the June 18 edition of the carnival was hosted last week by Blog Business World, and this week, it is my turn to host. There were an impressive number of submissions, which I have clustered into themes. Enjoy clicking through to read this sampling of bloggers' thoughts about new books, organization and HR management, self-management, business startups and entrepreneurship, managing risk, investing, and public management and politics! New Books: Businesspundit highlights Ben Casnocha's My Startup Life: The Story of a Teenage Entrepreneur. It was interesting to get a glimpse into what Ben has been up to, since I joined the...

  • 6/24/2007 1:58 PM Brad Trnavsky wrote:
    Great post! Lots of people say "That guy is a born leader", but the truth of it is, it takes a lot of work even for the folks it comes natural to. I hope more of the quiet people who believe they don't have what it takes learn from this. There are too many BAD leaders that corporate America would happily replace if there were enough qualified people to fill the jobs.
    Reply to this
    1. 6/24/2007 2:22 PM Wally Bock wrote:
      Thanks for the kind words. I have to disagree on one point, though.

      I think there are enough qualified people out there to do the job. We  promote the wrong people for two key reasons. First, we make promotion to management THE way to get both more pay and preferment. I think dual career tracks are essential. Second, we don't ask the right questions about what we expect a manager to do.

      Reply to this
  • 6/25/2007 8:41 PM Billy wrote:

    Great post!
    You said in your comment, "We don't ask the right questions about what we expect a manager to do."

    I believe and was taught that you cannot ask the right question until you know what you want. People today do not know what a true leader looks like and only see the bad ones around them. Because of that, they ask questions that will lead them to more bad leaders.

    Are leaders born?? hmmm the sarcastic answer would be, "Of course they are born, because everyone is conceived through birth," but my real thought on it is that people are born with different skils and talents, but in order to become a leader you have to be willing to go on a journey to learn from others but also discover what is in your heart. Everyone can be a leader, but not everyone will. Great post!

    Reply to this
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