Are Leaders Born or Made?

In an age where effective, ethical and estimable leadership is essential, yet exceedingly elusive, the controversial deliberation of how great leaders come to be is more poignant than ever.

In a report by the Centre of Creative Leadership, it is determined that the way we think about leadership affects how we perceive leaders, and that the beliefs we hold about how people become leaders affects our evaluation of leadership potential in others. A World Leadership Survey of 361 people at the top level of their respective organisations found that 52.4% of those surveyed believed that leaders are made, with only 19.1% believing that leaders are born and 28.5% of the opinion that leaders are equally born and made. Those who believe that leaders are made tend to place more emphasis on experience, whereas those who believe that leaders are born place more emphasis on the traits of an individual. Both schools of thought share the position that leaders should be participative, team oriented, charismatic and humane oriented. It is interesting to consider that the majority of high performing individuals subscribe to the belief that leaders are made. This may be a reflection of the growth mindset which contributes to progression and professional success, prevalent among individuals at top organisational level.

But what does the research say?

Research in genetics has revealed insightful and compelling findings in relation to this discussion. A paper published by De Neve refers to the identification of Genotype rs4950 which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations. The paper concludes that leadership is predominately based on developing skills, but that genetics are a factor, and that it is the interaction of the gene with environmental factors which affects the emergence of leadership qualities. In a previous study, De Neve discusses the genetic link for happiness, explaining that a variation of the 5-HTT gene could account for variance in satisfaction with life. This is relevant in that studies have found a correlation between positive emotion and success in the workplace, with individuals experiencing positive affect more likely to engage in favourable commercial and prosocial behaviours, demonstrate high levels of motivation and enthusiasm and to show strong collaborative instincts and perform well in negotiations.

Traits are described as ‘relatively stable characteristics that cause individuals to behave in certain ways’ (Van der Vleuten). Trait theories and the supposition that leaders are born purport that certain traits better suited to leadership. However, theories such as Eysenck’s PEN model or Costa and McCrae’s Five Factor ‘OCEAN’ model fail to address how or why individual differences in personality develop and emerge, and the fact that traits are often poor predictors of behaviour. Zaccaro’s Trait Model ascertains that effective leadership is derived from an integrated set of cognitive abilities, social capabilities, and dispositional tendencies; the effect of environmental and personal characteristics. Zaccaro posits that leadership emerges from a combined influence of multiple traits, rather than derived from various independent traits. The multistage model asserts the role of distal attributes (e.g. cognitive abilities, motives/values) and their influence on the development of proximal attributes (expertise, knowledge, skills) which directly influence leadership qualities and emergence. The model proposes that certain leadership traits are predictors of a successful leader, such as intelligence, creativity, achievement motivation, need for power, oral/written communication and interpersonal skills, among others.

In answer to the dissatisfaction with trait theories, Cognitive Resource Theory (CRT) was developed by Fred Fiedler, refined with the assistance of Joseph Garcia. The theory presents a dynamic perspective on leadership, differing by scenario, finding that intelligence is the main factor in low-stress situations, whereas experience is the main resource employed in high-stress situations. The theory presents four predictions: A leader’s cognitive ability contributes to the performance of the team only when the leader’s approach is directive, stress affects the relationship between intelligence and decision quality, experience is positively related to decision quality under high stress and, for simple tasks, leader intelligence and experience is irrelevant. Research has demonstrated that the ability to apply reason and logic can drop up to 75% with even the slightest provocation, and the neocortex, which is responsible for cognitive ability, can take up to 20 minutes to recover from an emotional encounter. If such feelings are frequently triggered, this results in a significant amount of time where logic and technical skills are incapacitated.

As organisations and individuals are becoming more self-aware in terms of addressing the more complex psychological elements of success, progression and leadership, we are beginning to see a shift from the more traditional emphasis on IQ towards a more prevalent acknowledgment of the value and importance of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Daniel Goleman describes how emotional intelligence represented approximately 80-90% of distinguishing competencies found in the top leaders at a global manufacturing company. Goleman identifies two types of emotional competence, personal and social, and further deconstructs emotional competence into subcategories of self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy and social skills or handling of relationships. Goleman elucidates on the two dimensions of personal competence; the competencies that determine how we manage ourselves, and those which determine how we manage relationships. It is accepted that there is a requisite for above average intelligence to master technical knowledge to pursue revered professions such as a lawyer, doctor, business executive, etc., however once the individual meets this barrier to entry, achieves the necessary qualifications and enters the workforce, their IQ and technical skills are usually more or less equal to those of their peers, and so EI becomes the differentiator. Therefore, in order to progress, building relationships becomes more important than technical skills.

Studies have proven the importance of EI skills in the workforce, with research conducted with Sanofi France, where focus was concentrated on the EI skills of salesforce resulted in a 12% annual boost in performance. Another example is that of Motorola investing in EI training for their manufacturing staff, which resulted in an increase in productivity of more than 90% of those trained. Leaders with well-adjusted emotional intelligence skills are predisposed to successfully manage emotions which allows them to handle the stress of the job, the frustrations, disappointments and joys in a more measured and effective manner. Moshe Zeidner describes several processes whereby EI positively influences work performance, including better communication of ideas, intentions and goals, team-work and social skills, and possessing effective and efficient coping skills.

Ronald Riggio subscribes to the belief that many aspects combine to develop a leader into a strong leader, such as professional development, self-awareness and introspection. In this way, Riggio recommends that the best approach for organisations to adopt is to grow their own effective leader through leadership development, rather than searching for the ‘perfect leader’ elsewhere. It is interesting to consider the spectrum of research in this area, with particular relevance for organisations determining and identifying those protégés in whom to invest for professional development and leadership grooming. There are mixed reports in this area, with some findings that there is a distinction between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness, meaning that some traits may predict the emergence of leadership in social situations but in practise have little influence on the effectiveness in a formal leadership role, with other reports supporting that the same pattern of individual differences is associated with both leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. These opposing findings are noteworthy as the process for selecting and mentoring the right employees for leadership positions is crucial to the ongoing vitality and progression of an organisation under effective successive leadership and management.

Much with the general conversation around cognitive versus non-cognitive skills and the most conducive focus areas of development for personal and professional success and achievement, it appears that the debate around leadership and whether leaders are born or made is not an either/or reality at all, but rather a complex combination of the two elements. Research appears to suggest that there are certain biological elements that establish a predisposition for the emergence of leadership qualities and aspirations, yet the social and environmental factors determine whether these biological traits flourish and emerge as effective leadership skills. The ongoing development of an individual, coupled with individual differences and a variety of biosocial factors inspire the belief that perhaps we should approach the matter with a more integrative perspective; perhaps leaders are Born then Made.

“If you’re not stressed, you’re LAZY.”

‘I’m so stressed’

How often have you heard this phrase lately? Be it the weary iterations of colleagues, the exasperated utterances of companions or the heavy despair of your own internal monologue – it seems that everyone around us is shouldering the burden of immense pressure, responsibilities and obligations.

In a world where deadlines loom menacingly, the demands on our time continue to compound and constrict our bandwidth and the pressure to attain success and status in a ubiquitous way create more strain than ever before, research is showing that for the first time in decades, adults over the age of 30 are becoming less happy than the generations before them. In a time where opportunity is rife, where the world is our oyster; we are educated, we have all the advantages of technology and scientific advancement, we are in the age of information and unlimited scope for achievement, why is it that we appear to be psychologically unfulfilled? With mental health issues such as anxiety and depression on the rise, it is time to seriously appraise our attitudes to our mental and psychological well-being, and the actions we are taking that are contributing to their protection or decline.

We have created a culture in which we enforce and perpetuate the idea that if you are not ‘stressed’, you are lazy. We have equated ‘stress’ and busyness with a good work ethic and ambition. This is a grievous flaw. The average person is juggling so many balls that they are ultimately going to lose their footing – and it is only after the fact, when it all comes crashing down around us, around our loved ones and friends, that maybe we take the time to re-evaluate our priorities and the (lack of) balance in our lives. Or we hop straight back on the merry-go-round at break neck speed to make up for the time we have lost; until each fracture reduces us to an increasingly brittle, hollow structure, diminishing our resilience and our capacity for joy until it consumes us. Because this is what is happening. This is what we are allowing to happen.

But this does not have to be the case.

The wonderful thing about ‘stress’ is that it is in fact neutral. Stress results from an individual’s perception and reaction to stimuli known as stressors, stimuli that challenge the body’s homeostasis and trigger arousal. The reaction of the body’s attempt to mitigate the stress will depend on our interpretation of the event or stimulus. Distress is the term given to negative stress, which results in a number of negative physiological and biological reactions, such as fatigue and illness. Alternatively, certain stress responses result in increased performance and act as a trigger for motivation; this type of stress is referred to as eustress. The Yerkes Dodson Law, however, suggests that even the positive effect reverses after a certain point, and advises that excessive stress will result in diminished performance over time.

This is where we need to assess the delicate balance between motivation, ambition and a strong work ethic, and burnout, disillusionment and fatigue. Setting high standards for ourselves and our staff is a positive way of driving our development and our progression. Hard work and continuous development and efficacy is vital to personal improvement and career progression. It is striking the balance between challenging ourselves and our staff, and pushing our limits and identifying when we are pushing ourselves to breaking point that is key to sustainable success and fulfilment in the long term.

Setting goals and taking measurable, deliberate action towards achieving them is fundamental to driving ourselves forward. It is imperative however that in defining our goals and our strategy for attaining them, that we also appraise our psychological and physiological needs, and incorporate these into our action plan. We must prioritise the preservation of our mental health and that of our colleagues and staff as we do productivity, innovation and commitment – because in the long run, they are in fact one and the same.

Happy individuals are more likely to engage in favourable commercial and prosocial behaviours within an employment context. They are more likely to demonstrate high levels of motivation and enthusiasm and show strong collaborative instincts and perform well in negotiations. Happiness is positively correlated with individual earnings and financial security and longitudinal evidence supports happiness as a consistent predictor for success in the workplace over time. Studies continue to show that workers who establish a good work-life balance show less burnout, less absenteeism and lower staff turnover.

In addition to the social and performance related benefits, the necessity to manage workplace and occupational stress is paramount to our psychological and physiological health and well-being. The toll that stress takes on our body and mind is tremendous, and the scope and severity of the effects are immeasurable. The consistent and prolonged production of stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol increase blood sugar level to provide energy for the adrenaline ‘fight or flight’ response and can lead to type 2 diabetes. Stress can increase heart and respiration rates, cause muscle tension and can cause erectile dysfunction in males and irregular, painful or cessation of menstruation in females. Too much cortisol as a result of stress response damages neurons in the hippocampus, which is involved in modulating the stress response. This leads to a decrease in the inhibition of cortisol secretion, resulting in more cortisol secretion under prolonged stress, causing further damage. Depression is also associated with HPA axis activation and elevated levels of cortisol and catecholamine. Studies show that depression is associated with lower T-cell and Natural Killer cell activity, which are vital to the healthy functioning of the immune system.

Therefore, the approach we take in mitigating workplace stress and the steps we take to manage it in an adaptive, effective manner are vital to our health, our well-being, and our professional performance and the capacity to achieve our goals. Employers and organisations need to create a culture where work-life balance is encouraged and enabled. Employees should feel supported and empowered to address these challenges in a proactive way, establishing an open environment in which mental health is valued, discussed and protected. Taking proactive steps such as talking it out, approaching colleagues or superiors to collaborate on an effective strategy, collaborating with a professional development coach, and incorporating techniques and healthy behaviours such as meditation, exercise, good nutrition and sufficient sleep are paramount to establishing a healthy work-life balance, which in turn will lead to a happier, more fulfilled life and enhance professional performance and progression.