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.

2 Replies to “Are Leaders Born or Made?”

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