Are Leaders Born or Made?

Is leadership learned or innate? Find out how to become a leader regardless of genes.

By Bruce Avolio, published on September 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Some people are born to move and shake the world. Their blessings: high energy, exceptional intelligence, extreme persistence, self confidence and a yearning to influence others.

After 50 years of collecting data on the topic, most psychologists believe that leadership qualities are innate or genetic and thus impossible to learn. Yet, my colleagues and I presented over a decade of research showing that leadership skills can be developed and mastered.

First, we found that Mom and Dad can instill us with the tools and drive to lead. Both senior VPs in high-tech firms and the military leaders we interviewed had very involved parents who set challenging goals, translated failure into "how to succeed next time" and lived by high standards of moral conduct--helping their kids to appreciate diverse views.

But even if you weren't prepared early in life to be a leader, we've discovered techniques to help you take the helm: Visualize obstacles; set goals and find someone who will hold you accountable to them; seek and incorporate feedback from colleagues; reflect on your best and worst moments; train gradually; broaden your model of leadership to include a full range of styles; and honor high ethical standards.

In a series of five studies, leaders of different ages and levels of experience from around the world participated in workshops with other members of their organizations. Based on this model, the teams developed practical problem-solving techniques and leadership that they successfully deployed over the following six to 12 months. Regardless of whether their skills were born or made, all got the job done equally well.

Bruce Avolio, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Leadership Studies at SUNY-Binghamton and author of Full Leadership Development: Building the Vital Forces and Organization (Sage, 1999).