Are Leaders Born or Made? Why the Question Itself is Dangerous
Leaders, born or made? Managers! Avoid the question.
Posted December 29, 2010
This is the most frequently asked question about leadership, but I hate hearing the question. Why? Because we already know the answer. Studies using identical twins estimate that leadership is about one-third born (due to genetic factors) and two-thirds made*. Yet, many leaders say the exact opposite -- believing leaders are mostly born. So why is the born vs. made question dangerous?
The answer is that executives who believe that leaders are born, give less attention to leader development, both their own personal development as well the development of those they lead. They are focused on selecting leaders with the "right stuff," and expecting that those leaders' natural abilities will mean organizational success. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Sure, selection is important, but good leader development efforts are more important. Unfortunately, in a down economy leadership development programs are often among the first cuts. It's usually more cost-effective to grow your company's leaders in house,** rather than focusing on hiring the proven (and born) leaders from outside. So greater, not fewer, resources should go into leader development.
Here is another reason why is the born vs. made question is dangerous: Those in-born leadership qualities may only emerge through learning. We recently finished a study where we looked at the relationship between extraversion and leader emergence in a longitudinal sample of ordinary people. Research has shown clearly that extraverts have greater leadership potential than introverts, and so did participants in our study. Except, when we looked at social skills (which we assume is a learned skill), only the socially skilled extraverts emerged as leaders. Extraversion is only an in-born leadership advantage if one also learns and develops effective communication skills.
The lessons? First, don't ask the "born vs. made" question. Then:
- Focus on leadership development first, selection second.
- Don't be seduced by your past success: Continue your personal leadership development throughout your career.
- Take concrete steps to grow leadership capacity in your company - looking within, rather than outside for your leaders.
*Arvey, R. D., Rotundo, M., Johnson, W., Zhang, Z., & McGue, M. (2006). The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic and personality factors. Leadership Quarterly, 17, 1-20.
Arvey, R. D., Zhang, Z., Avolio, B. J., & Kreuger, R.F. (2007). Developmental and genetic determinants of leadership role occupancy among women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 693-706.
**Fulmer, R.M., & Conger, J.A. (2004). Growing your company's leaders: How great organizations use succession management to sustain competitive advantage. New York: AMACOM.