Leaders: Born or Made?

The most often-asked question about leadership, and the answer is:

Posted Mar 18, 2009

This is the most basic and most often-asked question about leadership. To cut to the chase, the answer is: ‘mostly made.' The best estimates offered by research is that leadership is about one-third born and two-thirds made. The job of leading an organization, a military unit, or a nation, and doing so effectively, is fantastically complex. To expect that a person would be born with all of the tools needed to lead just doesn't make sense based on what we know about the complexity of social groups and processes.

The fact that leadership is mostly made is good news for those of us involved in leadership development - leaders can indeed be developed. Yet, there is some "raw material," some inborn characteristics, that predispose people to be and become leaders. What are some of the inborn qualities?

Research suggests that extraversion is consistently associated with obtaining leadership positions and leader effectiveness. There is also some evidence that being bold, assertive, or risk-taking can be advantageous for leaders. Leaders also need to be smart to analyze situations and figure out courses of action. So, intelligence is associated with leadership, but perhaps not general IQ, but social intelligence - understanding of social situations and processes - is the component of intelligence that is important for leadership. Finally, some sort of empathy, or ability to know followers, is also advantageous for leaders (although much of this is learned). As noted leadership scholar, Bernard Bass, noted, "The leader must be able to know what followers want, when they want it, and what prevents them from getting what they want."

Does this mean that introverts, persons of average social intelligence, or those of us who are not particularly empathic will not make good leaders? Certainly not. Remember, most of leadership is made, not born. So, if you aspire to positions of leadership, then the best course is to embark on a leader self-development plan.

Fortunately, there is tremendous interest in leadership and in leader development, and there has lately been a strong emphasis on the importance of self-development for leaders. Rather than getting leadership development from a costly program or from your employer (development/training budgets have been cut deeply by the recession), you can embark on your own leadership development program. Below are some resources for self-development, as well as references/links to the research on born vs. made.[Read more here about the dangers of the "born" belief.]

A terrific guidebook to leader self-development is Bruce Avolio's Leadership Development in Balance: MADE/Born (Erlbaum, 2005).

Other good resources are available at the Center for Creative Leadership.

The research on born vs. made was done with studies of identical twins:

Arvey, R. D., Rotundo, M., Johnson, W., Zhang, Z., & McGue, M. (2006). The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic andpersonality 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.