Hard Work

Leaders are Born, Not Made

Whether or not we like it, leaders are born, not made. Although our culture would like to believe that there is a kernel of leadership in everyone, I’m just not convinced.

While there might be a bit of leader deep inside everyone, that does not make them a leader. People become leaders when they step forward and when they are accepted as leader by their followers. So let’s break this process down.

In order to step forward, an individual needs to have the desire and drive to lead. Research suggests that these factors are personality traits, long-lived and durable.  In order to be accepted by followers, a prospective leader needs to be perceived as a leader by the followers.  Traits such as intelligence, physical attractiveness and extraversion are traits that followers look for in a leader. You haven’t seen a fat President of the United States in the past 50 years (Bill Clinton was as close as it gets). Nope. U.S. presidents tend to be tall, pleasantly attractive, thin men. Not movie stars, but pretty damned good-looking. Generally we want our leaders to be smarter than ourselves. (George W. Bush appears to be an exception to this rule).

As much as we would like to believe that everyone can be a leader, the fact of the matter is that, fair or not, followers want a certain type of leader.  And like it or not, not all of us have the intelligence, drive or desire to lead.

But all is not lost. We need followers as well as leaders. What we all do have, however, is the ability to influence, to use acquired power to achieve organizational goals and objectives. Perhaps our desire for “small l leaders” that is, leaders who don’t lead from formal positions of power, but those who lead from influence and ability within a team, is driven by our need for more effective, engaged people, not by our need of leaders.

We need to stop believing that everyone can lead. But, everyone can be effective. To quote Sami Jo Small, Women’s Hockey Olympic Gold Medalist, “It’s not the role you play, it’s how you play the role”.

31 replies »

  1. Just as people are not born to read (they are taught), not born to ride a bike (they are taught), not born to be a mechanic (they are taught), and certainly not born to lead. They have to acquire the traits and values necessary to lead through their upbringing. Leadership is not biological or hereditary. Although you present some interesting arguments, we are not born to do anything; just eat and sleep. And, if we are struggling with eating and sleeping, we adapt and learn how to achieve those commodities through trial, error, experience and time. Yes, it is important to have the appropriate bearing (a.k.a. physical attractiveness and demeanor) to be seen as authoritative, and, absolutely, intelligence is a necessary prerequisite. But, I get frustrated when I see studies and articles that say that leaders are born, not made. Tell that to our valued students at West Point, The Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy, and others like it, where they enter as young, immature youth, and come out as strong officers of character worthy of leading men (and women) to victory in battle and life. The only thing people are born into, in some cases, is MONEY. Unfortunately, the only thing money buys is the United States Presidency; NOT LEADERSHIP.

    • I absolutely agree. “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else — through hard work”.

  2. Wow, Colleen, this post really makes me think.

    I generally agree that not everyone has the personality or desire to lead in traditional ways, or in the high profile leadership opportunities you describe. But does that come from lack of personality and/or skill or the basic motivation to lead? I ask because I think of leaders, some of high profile and achieving great results, who had no desire to lead until the right situation shook them to their core.

    Gandhi comes to mind. He was, by all accounts, an introverted, scholarly lawyer. He was small in stature and meek looking. His knees trembled the first time he made a speech in court so he had to sit down to address the judge. Some accounts suggest he was afraid of the dark. He was the type of person we might pass over while looking for a ‘leader.”

    Yet, his legendary leadership abilities weren’t called forth until he returned to India and saw a basic injustice: that the Indian people could not buy their own salt. First motivated to correct one injustice, he led a 200 mile Salt March, which became the impetus to mobilize millions of Indians to demand their independence through civil disobedience rather than violence.

    Few of us would select Gandhi as a leader, perhaps even himself. Yet, today he’s recognized as one of the great transformational leaders in history; still inspiring millions of people. We may have never experienced this legendary representative of leaders had HE not been motivated to resolve a single injustice.

    Returning to your original question, I don’t know if everyone can lead. But, I don’t know if we (or they) know this until people discover it for themselves.

  3. Is it fate (born a leader) or is it choice (made a leader)? Siding with fate seems a sneaky way of absolving yourself of all responsibilities in the choices you make or don’t make. After all, if he/she is the leader, it was fate, they were born to be there and nothing I do or say will make a difference – therefore, “It is not my fault!” The term, fatalistic” comes to mind.
    It is hard to refute your statement though. If someone were to become a leader, be it political, financial, or even religious, then they were obviously a born leader and those that don’t make it were not born leaders. This dismisses a life time of experience, toil and effort, not to mention dollars, that went into making someone into the vision of a leader.
    I’ve been told that you are somewhat of a whiz with marketing. Apply your marketing concepts and I’m sure you can create (make) a rock star, sports star, or even a political figure a household name rocketing them into a position of leadership. Of course there has to be some skill evident in the leader. With money and marketing you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – at least the perception is created. History takes care of the rest.
    I also think the monarchies of the past would tend to disagree with you though many would be standing on pretty shaky ground.
    Good way to get controversy going!

    • Actually, getting the controversy going was the whole point of this post. It’s important for us to question our beliefs every now and then. Bruce Avolio and his co-authors believe that leadership skills are partially heritable (30%) and partially learned (70%), so the real answer to this question is that leaders are made AND born.

      You can’t make a rock star who has staying power with no talent, eventually the star will fade if they have no talent. (I’m just waiting for Justin Bieber to fade myself). Eventually followers will see through the no skills leader. That’s why manufactured boy bands don’t succeed if the skill and talent are mediocre.

      My point here is that one needs the “born” talents and a life time of learning, skills and experience to be an effective leader. The desire to lead alone is not enough, nor is are inherent traits. In the end, it all has to come together – inherited traits and a conscious effort to develop leadership capability and acceptance of followers.

  4. Colleen – it appears you have hit the right note to stimulate thought and some controversy with what is often seen as one of the core queries of leadership. My belief is that leaders can be taught, however there is a ‘minimum’ requirement that must exist to start with i.e. emotional intelligence, intelligence, physical, personality and other personal attributes. What I am interested to discover (and I continue to look for this when developing and working with newer and more experienced leaders) is to what degree is the nature versus nurture argument a reality. Your follow up comments that leaders are made and born is accurate. I wonder why we continue to ask the question inferring that it must be one or the other!

    An individual requires a base level of potential and attributes to work from – not every person can be a leader. In fact, believing that anyone can be a leader cheapens the dedication and challenges that effective leadership requires. To stimulate further discussion, maybe being born with 60% (???) of the attributes and potential i.e. nature with the remainder being learned (nurture) through development, role models, personal experience etc. is one philosophy. Although subjective, there must be some potential that is ingrained. What I do know is that not all leaders by name are leaders by nature, meaning that a title does not make you a leader. Unfortunately this is more the norm than the exception.

    I touched on this subject in a blog late last year:
    Practicing Leadership: Skill Development & Commitment: http://coachstationsteve.com/2011/12/22/practicing-leadership-skill-development-commitment/
    Steve: coachstation.com.au

  5. I think the dynamic of leadership has changed with the advent of Internet and social media. In the era of television, a leader needed intelligence, physical attractiveness, and extraversion to be broadcast to the masses. Now, anyone who has a computer and an opinion or knowledge can be heard; Now more than ever, the opinions of our peers shape our decisions and how we live our lives in a big way (See Seth Godin’s Ted Talk). It’s a whole different ball game and leadership needs an updated definition. An overweight 30-something who lives in his mom’s basement may not scream leader to you and I but to his peers in the World of Warcraft forum he is a god.

  6. Great post Colleen. I would imagine that many would take the other side of this theory. Yet I’m aligned with you. I might add many can lead, but “great” leaders have inherent traits in their DNA that allow them to rise above the pack. Furthermore, for a cause where there is square alignment on passion, conviction and knowledge, even the average can rise to the occasion to be great. Thanks for sharing. Dave

  7. I believe that in that in the end we are the sum of our parents. They have provided our genetic make up, facilitating good looks, physic and the basic makings for intelligence. Their “input”, however, does not end at birth. They “imprint” us with their values and personality traits. They provide us guidance and opportunities (ours still to choose to implement positively or negatively). So I guess my position on this debate is right dab smack in the middle. Leaders are both born and made!

  8. What fun for a Friday…a good juicy debate. I’ve enjoyed the post and all the comments. One particularly. Coach Station talks about emotional intelligence as one of the requirements of leadership. Don’t I WISH! (Actually, I’d be out of work if too many leaders had more EI). For me, this stimulates interesting thinking about the difference between leadership as a formal job (e.g., CEO) and leadership as a activity. Somehow many people seem to reach leadership roles without characteristics we would see as necessary (George Bush being a good example). I find that the emergent leaders from within the pack tend to have more of these “traits” of leaders than many formal leaders do. What a sorry commentary on our selection and success practices!

  9. Reblogged this on strategicleaders and commented:
    The debate carries on: Are leaders born or can anyone become a leader? Colleen makes some very interesting and relevant observations here, but I would suggest the critical factor would be to determine what we regard as “leading” and when a person qualifies to be a leader. For instance, is someone with strong (inborn) leadership capabilities a leader even if he or she is not leading anyone? Or the opposite – is someone without any natural leadership capabilities who have learned basic leadership skills which he or she uses to lead people, not a leader? My personal take is that just about anyone could improve their leadership skills: some from poor to acceptable; others from acceptable to good; and yet others from good to great. What do you think?

  10. Leaders are born not made. You cannot make what is not.

    Some people tend to confuse the words Made and Developed. You don’t make a leader, you develop a leader. You don’t make up leadership skills; you develop leadership skills etc…

    Therefore, leaders are born not made. But any born leader needs to develop, nurture and exercise his leadership to succeed.

    Really easy, you will notice that leaders exhibit leadership skills as early as 2 years old. The way they lead their siblings and friends at home, at school and on the playground.

    Leaders from their early ages, exercise their leadership in a compelling and unconscious ways. Organizing outing, parties, handling home issues, being a scout leader, fraternity presidents etc……

    PS. Keep in the mind a clear distinction between Individual Leadership, Social Leadership and Political Leadership.

    Pierre El-Hnoud
    Leadership & Strategy Advisor

  11. I think leaders are born and the situations and time are his/her teachers. They get experiences while passing the the time. There could be thousands of people in a society. they all may know what is going on but their might be few people who know what to do, not all of them. These people read the situations, and they do what they people need. A leader could be a single parent, he/she might have only one kid. he/she needs to read all aspect of his/her son, then he/she can lead him on the right path.

  12. I agree that leader are born not made because one among the qualities of leader is honesty.The quastion is can you made someone to be an honesty?No! Is the kind of propert that the leader has to be borned with it.

  13. Colleen,
    Thank you for stepping out of the crowd and voicing this opinion.
    I am teaching an online class at a community college called Creative Leadership. I am looking for sources of both sides of the Born vs Made debate, and there really isn’t too much out there on the born side that doesn’t refer to a marketing-type speech for a MLM company.
    I am going to send my students to your blog for your viewpoint to consider in their own response.
    I’m now following you with my own WordPress account and look forward to reading more!
    Thank you!
    ~ Laura K. Bantz

    • Thanks Laura – I look forward to hearing about your class discussion. I actually believe that leaders are both born and made. Research suggests that 30 – 40% of our leadership capacity is in-born, that is, it is a trait, while the rest is learned, and there are a number of pre-conditions to learning, just as drive, motivation, resilience and luck.

      Hope that you enjoy the blog. There’s lot’s of good research here, for instance some intriguing stuff on humility and leadership.

      I look forward to hearing from you more.


  14. Leaders are born and made as well.some of the qualities in any leader are inborn or inharited after he grew up and those qualities become his or her skill and by the help of knowledge and learning

  15. everyone is born to be someone great in life, everyone has his/her own destiny to fulfill in life. when a child is given birth to, their has to be a particular trait of leadership that will be seen in the child while growing, for example he may be very influential among his peer group, schoolmate,and playmate. i will like to relate it to the trait theory”you can only become a leader only when you have a particular features, attributes, characteristics” most people are born with a special type of traits that makes him a leader.

  16. I am an academy graduate and still not every officer that goes through the motions comes out a strong leader. Most still are not true leaders. They are managers. Hence the fact that a great deal of military officers choose support roles, staying clear of careers requiring intense leadership. Yes they may be functional as leaders but TRUE leaders are born that way. I agree with the author.

  17. very interesting views from you’ll …..before i read through your comments i hAD A DIFFERENT notion about origins of leadership but can’t deny from the way Dale Wilson puts it across, maybe anyone can be a leader given the feir grounds and opportunities to learn.Noone was born literate …..if we learnt how to read and write sure we can learn how to lead! BUT most importantly it takes determination,passion and patience because people (followers)can be hard to handle….”human nature”

  18. I have long held the belief that leaders are born, not made. To clarify, your potential to lead or level of acceptance as a leader is something you are born with just like your intelligence, ability to run fast or to jump high. Certainly through training, education and emulation, your skill set increases in any category. Why is there such opposition to this belief? My theory is that “leaders are made” sells and “leaders are born” would not; who would purchase the book titled “Leaders are Born, so Get Back in Line”? I will conclude with this, visit any playground in the world and you will witness leaders and followers…

  19. i also conclude by saying that leadership is both born and made as Colleen Sheren says indeed one need to be born talented and a life time of learning skills and experience to be an effective leader

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