What Executives Say about Whether Leaders are Born or Made
Are leaders born or made? Your perspective on the answer is as important as, if not more important than, the answer itself. This is because one’s belief about how people become leaders affects how he/she thinks about leadership and leadership development.
Part I of this series by Sophia and Dr. Wen-Dong Li showed that both nature and nurture play a role in shaping leadership and from a scientific point of view, there’s no absolute answer to the question.
Here in Part II, we introduce CCL research that explores how a leader’s belief about leaders being born or made may play a role in how they think about leadership and leadership development.
In our research for our whitepaper “Are Leaders Born or Made?” we asked 361 top-level executives (e.g., chief executives, operating officers, and presidents of organizations) from 53 different countries “Are leaders born or made?”
The participants were shown the word “Born” on one end of a continuum and “Made” on the other end, and they moved a sliding bar to the point that approximated their answer.
- 19.1% believed that leaders were more born (we’ll call them “Born Believers” throughout),
- 52.4% believed that leaders were more made (labeled “Made Believers” throughout).
- The rest believed that leaders were equally born and made, as shown.
There were some other interesting findings.
1. Born Believers and Made Believers may think a little differently about what creates a leader.
- Born Believers place substantially more importance on traits than do Made Believers, and believe that traits are slightly more important than are experiences.
- Made Believers believe that experiences are substantially more important than are traits (though both agree that experience is important).
2. Born Believers and Made Believers may have the same image of leadership, but may describe them a little differently.
We also asked the executives to select one image out of 17 provided that represents good leadership and to choose up to 5 adjectives to describe the image they chose. The image that was most often chosen by both Born Believers and Made Believers was the same: a music conductor.
Born Believers and Made Believers both chose “uses talents of different members effectively” and “sets direction” to describe the music conductor image. But, when we looked deeper into other pictures and descriptors chosen:
- Born Believers were likely to be more supportive of individual actions and more leader- or authority-focused (e.g., a leader “leading by example” or “leading the way.”)
- Made Believers were more supportive of influencing and other-focused actions (e.g., a leader “inspires,” “empowers,” “acts as a mentor,” “shows integrity,” and “serves others.”)
What This Means for Leadership Development
The findings imply that how executive leaders believe about nature or nurture may relate to how they think about developing leaders in their organizations.
Our results suggest that when leaders at the tops of organizations are:
- Born Believers: they tend to look for certain leadership traits and their perception of leadership is more leader-focused.
- Made Believers: they believe that experience is more important than making a leader and their perception of leadership is more other-focused.
This can have implications for leadership development.
When we began this research, we purposefully asked those at the very top of organizations, because their opinion matters and they set the tone for the way leaders should be developed. Their thoughts and opinions may influence the entire culture of the organization and the way leaders are developed based on that person’s stance on the question “Are leaders born or made?”
For instance, if the CEO believes leaders are more born, he/she may focus more on selection. Organizational development may tend to have early identification programs in combination with on-the-job stretch assignments to develop certain leaders.
On the other hand, if your CEO 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.
If you feel you do not fit in with your organization’s way of developing leaders, it may be because your view of the “Are leaders born or made” question isn’t quite shared with the belief held by the top leader.