There has been a debate for years about what makes a leader. This debate has resulted in two schools of thought. One school proposes that leaders are made from a select few unique of individuals, born with a rare set of leadership abilities – leaders are born. The other school of thought proposes that leaders are made, that we learn, grow and develop into leaders – leaders are made.
Warren Bennis spent a significant amount of time studying leaders and leadership. He also spent time on the faculties of Harvard and Boston University, an author of over 30 books and an adviser to four United States presidents. After as significant amount of research on leadership, he came to the following conclusion:
“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” – Warren G. Bennis
He goes on to say that. . .
“Biographies of great leaders sometimes read as if they entered the world with an extraordinary genetic endowment, as if their future leadership role was preordained. Do not believe it. The truth is that major capacities and competencies of leadership can be learned if the basic desire to learn them exists.” – Warren Bennis
It turns out that the vast majority of leaders are made through focused effort, hard work and daily action.
Leaders are Made, Not Born
Whilst there are some genetic qualities that can help speed up leadership development, there is no evidence that leadership is in your DNA or the result of personality.
Let’s explore some research on this topic.
- Gender plays a very little role in explaining the difference in leadership potential. Some studies show that women are slightly more effective leaders, but this seems to be the result of higher standards being applied when appointing women to leadership positions.
- Leaders come in many shapes and sizes. There are very few characteristics that predict leadership potential. Research has found that people who are adjusted, social, ambitious, and curious are more likely to become leaders. Whilst IQ contributed less than 5% to the likelihood that someone would emerge as a leader.
- Leadership behaviours like any other human practice is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. And whilst some people may be born with leadership qualities, research suggests anywhere between 30% – 60%, most leadership behaviors are developed over time. At its core leadership consists of a set of skills and behaviours that can be learnt.
If you ask a leader how they became the people they are today, I doubt they will say, they were born with a unique set of gifts. Instead they’ll tell you stories of their personal struggles, hardships and which they had to endure whilst learning to lead.
Leadership is Not Personality
When considering whether leaders are born or made, many believe leadership is the result of a charismatic personality. Whilst the attraction of charismatic people is real, leadership success is much more than smooth talk and an outgoing personality. Leaders throughout history have each had a unique personality and style. Reflect on the leadership style and personality following historical leaders:
- Nelson Mandela
- Steve Jobs
- Winston Churchill
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Mahatma Ghandi
- Henry Ford
- Abraham Lincoln
- Warren Buffet
- Bill Gates
- Lou Gerstner
Reflecting on the style and personality of each of these leaders, it’s easy to see how each leader’s personality and style was very different. Their leadership was an natural extension of a clear purpose, their personal experiences and life story.
“Look at the life story of a visionary leader and it is unlikely you will find much in the way of specific training for leadership. Thus far, most people who have succeeded as visionary leaders seem to have been self-selected and self-made. Bill Gates received no leadership education, nor did Ted Turner, Wayne Huizenga, Frances Hesselbein, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, or any of the others… And apart from an active curiosity, some basic intelligence, and the ability to learn from experience, they seem to have no remarkable genetic endowment predisposing them to leadership success. They are people who figured out for themselves how to dream dreams, enthuse others with their visions, and then make them happen.” – Burt Nanus, Visionary Leadership
History shows that leaders are self-made, rather than a product of their genetics. Leadership is a reflection of who you are and the change you want to make in the world. This requires a deep understanding of who you are.
“Leaders have nothing but themselves to work with… we are our own raw material. Only when we know what we’re made of and what we want to make of it can we begin our lives“ and we must do it despite an unwitting conspiracy of people and events against us.. To become a leader, then, you must become yourself, become the maker of your own life.. Know thyself, then, means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be.. Until you make your life your own, you’re walking around in borrowed clothes.” – Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader
The great leaders of history have always been self-made. Leadership is not the result of your genetic makeup or a specific kind of personality. Leadership is a collection of skills, most of which can be learned, developed and improved.
Leadership is Learned
“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” – Vince Lombardi
Everyone is born to lead. The question is not “are you a leader?” the question is “what kind of leader are you?”. The challenge is what kind of leader do you want to become?
Research complied from more than 100 scientists in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, published by Cambridge University Press. Studied expertise and top performance in a wide variety of domains, including surgery, acting, chess, writing, computer programming, music, aviation, and many others. This research found that:
“Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.” – K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, Edward T. Cokely, The Making of an Expert
The researchers found that the development of expertise does not come naturally. It’s not something you’re born with, rather excellence requires “deliberate practice“. Just like experts, leaders are made through deliberate practice, struggle, sacrifice, hard work, and regular self-assessment.
“. . . leaders are made, not born, and made more by themselves than by any external means. Second . . . that no leader sets out to be a leader per se, but rather to express himself freely and fully.” – Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader
Leadership is learnt. Not by attending classes, but through deliberate practice consisting of feedback, coaching and experimentation.
“Leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices. Leadership is not something mystical and ethereal that cannot be understood by ordinary people. Given the opportunity for feedback and practice, those with the desire and persistence to lead can substantially improve their abilities to do so.” – James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
Who has ever asked if accountants, doctors or engineers are born or made? Nobody! That’s because we all know that people learn to become accountants, doctors and engineers. The same is true for leaders.
Leadership Development Takes Deliberate Practice
Research has shown that excellence is the result of deliberate practice, not natural talent. Likewise, most people have the ability to become good leaders. Leadership development takes deliberate effort to unlock leadership potential.
”There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in ‘deliberate’ practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.” – K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, Edward T. Cokely, The Making of an Expert
Leadership is developed, like all other skills, through deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is about taking risks, working hard, stretching yourself, and stepping outside your comfort zone.
“Sam Snead, who’d been called ‘the best natural player ever,’ told Golf Digest, ‘People always said I had a natural swing. They thought I wasn’t a hard worker. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did.’” – K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, Edward T. Cokely, The Making of an Expert
The idea that leaders are born is a destructive leadership myth. When you believe leadership is the result of your genetics, you’re much less likely to take initiative, learn from your mistakes or commit to personal development.
Perhaps the real leadership issue is:
- only a few of us take the time to understand our purpose and vision for the world.
- only a few of us commit to learning how to express our unique gifts and talents.
- only a few of us are willing to pay the price necessary to become a leader.
Leadership is not something you’re born with, it’s not inherited, and it’s not the result of your DNA. Leaders are made when they connect their purpose, unique strengths with a deep passion to make a difference in the world.
Instead of asking, “Are leaders born or made?”. You should rather be asking yourself “What contribution will I make in this world?”