• Published May 30, 2020
  • 7 Minute Read

Are Leaders Born or Made?

Published May 30, 2020
Are Leaders Born or Made: Perspectives from the Executive Suite

Perspectives From the Executive Suite

Do you think a leader should be a hero or a negotiator? Out in front leading people or behind the scenes, coordinating the work of the group? Are people destined to become leaders, or can leadership skills be developed? Are leaders born or made?

The way we think about leadership affects how we perceive the leaders around us. For instance, if we expect a leader to be a hero, we are likely to see someone who takes charge to save the day as having the characteristics of a good leader, and someone who asks everyone’s opinions and lets the group make decisions as weak.

Alternatively, if we think a leader should be collaborative and focused on making sure decisions arise from the group, we would view someone who’s directive as aggressive or a tyrant.

In the same way, our beliefs about how people become leaders affect how we evaluate people’s leadership potential. Believing people are born leaders is likely to result in a focus more on selection (identifying the right people) rather than on development (developing the people you have).

On the other hand, believing that people are made into leaders by their experiences would be more likely to result in a greater focus on making sure people had the right opportunities to develop into leaders.

The Impact of Genes on Leadership

For scientists, one key challenge to answering the question “Are leaders born or made?” is that each individual’s growth trajectory is influenced by many factors. The Minnesota twin studies have been designed to tackle this challenge.

By comparing identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) and fraternal twins (who share 50% of their genes, on average), researchers reported that genetic factors explained about 30% of individual differences in whether people hold leadership positions in the workplace. However, it’s worth noting that environmental factors, especially work experiences, are substantially important in determining leadership.

Further studies have been conducted to identify specific DNA markers that may be involved in genetic influences on leadership. One study examined how a dopamine transporter gene, DAT1, was involved in genetic influences on leadership role occupancy. Researchers found that on one hand, individuals with this gene were more likely to demonstrate moderate rule-breaking behaviors, which is important for becoming a leader.

(Think about some successful business leaders of the century — Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Jack Welch — they started demonstrating “rule-breaking” behaviors in their early ages, and later on, they dared to transform the rules and became leaders of the industry.)

On the other hand, this gene was also associated with a lack of planning, self-control, and perseverance, which are also important leadership competencies. The findings suggest that whether individuals with this gene become leaders or not depends on other factors such as the environment. For instance, if families and organizations provide safe environments to encourage individuals’ innovative behaviors while also encouraging self-regulation, the overall influences of the gene might become positive, and individuals are likely to take up leadership positions.

So, what is the implication of these scientific findings?

Scientific research confirms that it’s the joint influences of both nature and nurture that play important roles. In fact, the data showed that environmental factors weigh heavier in influencing individuals’ leadership journeys.

The implication for most of us is that leadership can be practiced and learned.

Parents, trainers, organizations, and educators should create a learning environment where developmental opportunities are provided to allow individuals to grow as leaders and fully realize their leadership potential.

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Do Leaders at Your Organization Believe That Leaders Are Born or Made?

Understanding whether people in your organization think leaders are born or made is critical because these attitudes play out in recruiting, promotion, and development decisions.

Will your organization spend resources on finding people believed to be born leaders, or on developing people into becoming leaders? Will executives emphasize the selection of talent and only invest in those who they believe have leadership potential? Or will they see value in developing the leadership skills of a broad group of people?

The stance of senior executives on the question of whether leaders are born or made may influence the entire culture of your organization and the way leaders are developed.

For instance, if your CEO or executive team believes leaders are more born, they may focus more on selection. Organizational development may tend to have early identification programs for high potentials, in combination with on-the-job stretch assignments to develop certain leaders.

On the other hand, if your CEO or executive team believes that leaders are more made, a broad-based leadership development strategy may be well received, and expected, by leaders up and down the organization.

Top leaders set the tone for the development of others within their organization, so understanding their views can inform talent identification and development strategies.

Our Research Explores the Question: Are Leaders Born or Made?

We conducted research on this question, asking 361 C-level executives “Are leaders born or made?”

We found that their views were decidedly mixed:

  • 19% believed that leaders are more born,
  • 52% believed they are more made, and
  • 29% believed that leaders are about equally born and made.

Are Leaders Born or Made? Perspectives From Executives

This distribution suggests that executives don’t really agree on whether leaders are born or made. And neither do leadership scholars — the selection vs. development debate is strong, as arguments for both sides continue to emerge.

We also found that “Born Believers” and “Made Believers” may think a little differently about what creates a leader.

Born Believers place substantially more importance on leader traits than do Made Believers and believe that traits are slightly more important than are experiences.

In contrast, Made Believers believe that experiences are substantially more important than are leader traits (though both agree that experience is important).

Are Leaders Born or Made? Which is Most Important in Creating a Leader: Traits, Experiences, or Training?

Development Is Important, Regardless of Whether Leaders Are Born or Made

Our results indicate that there is little difference in how Borns and Mades at the tops of organizations feel about the availability of learning opportunities within their organizations.

Specifically, 82% of Borns and 89% of Mades believe that their organizations value employee learning and development opportunities. Additionally, 84% of Borns and 82% of Mades believe that learning and developmental resources are available to them in their organizations.

Apparently, even when top executives believe that leaders are more born than they are made, they also believe that learning from experience is important for development. The difference is focus.

Borns are likely to think that organizations should be very selective in who gets developmental opportunities, offering them only to those the leaders believe are most likely to benefit from them.

Improving the Leadership Pipeline

Regardless of how you answer the question “Are leaders born or made?” you can continue to improve your organization’s leadership bench strength by providing your team with access to varied developmental experiences.

When you make sure that your people have adequate access to developmental experiences, coaching, mentoring, training, and other leadership experiences, they have the opportunity to learn and become better leaders. Whether these experiences draw out and boost natural abilities or create new leadership skills may be debated — but either way, the organization benefits.

Organizations can also benefit in other ways when they provide more general support for development. Access to development has been shown to increase employees’ job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and performance. Conversely, the absence of support and development opportunities makes employees want to leave.

In conclusion, as long as there are leaders, people are going to wonder — are leaders born or made?

But overwhelmingly, our research found, executives agree that people become leaders, in large part, as a result of experiences that help them learn how to lead.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Whether leaders are born or made, your organization will want to offer talent development to your people. We’d love to partner with you to craft impactful, individualized leadership development for your leaders at all levels.

Based on Research by

Bill Gentry
Bill Gentry, PhD
Former Director, Leadership Insights & Analytics and Senior Research Scientist

Bill’s research at CCL focused on examining what leaders, particularly first-time managers, can do to be successful in their work and life, and to avoid derailment. He’s the author of Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders and co-author of the guidebook Developing Political Savvy.

Bill’s research at CCL focused on examining what leaders, particularly first-time managers, can do to be successful in their work and life, and to avoid derailment. He’s the author of Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders and co-author of the guidebook Developing Political Savvy.

Are Leaders Born or Made?
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