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Are Great Leaders Made or Born?

Social Business, Leadership and Psychology: Are Great Leaders Made or Born?Ask experts what the most asked question about leadership is, and they’ll usually answer "are they made or born?" There are dozens of books, decade’s worth of debates and many well-documented studies on the subject of leadership. Nevertheless, the debate rages on.

Perception is everything, even if perception and reality are often at odds. Some perceive leadership to be about nature, others ascribe to the nurture theory. I find it to be a bit of both, with emphasis on nurture.

Some people seem to have been born with an “extra something,” a trait of tenacity and take-over-ship that makes them “natural born leaders.” But, as with people like Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt, those who exhibit leadership traits early on — even when born into a privileged lifestyle — don’t become leaders by accident. They’re made into leaders, or they make themselves into one.

A survey by The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) put the question of nature versus nurture (born or made) to C-level executives of companies in 53 countries. In order to better explore how these beliefs affect the workplace, the researchers put a variety of leadership questions to those at both ends of the spectrum (borns and mades).

The CCL results were illuminating, including:

  • Borns and mades agree leaders should be participative, team oriented, charismatic and humane
  • Borns are more likely than mades to believe that following protocol and behaving in traditional ways according to status and position make leaders more effective, and that leaders need to act in strict accordance with established practices, guidelines, and conventions to be successful
  • Slightly more than half (53.4 percent) of the top executives think leaders are made
  • Approximately one fifth (19.1 percent) think they are born
  • Just over a quarter (28.5 percent) think leaders are both born and made.

Clearly a consensus on this issue has yet to be reached. Media and Technology Psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge suggests that there are numerous reasons why not.

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“Our traits and innate qualities may play a role,” said Rutledge in a recent interview, “but the funny thing about leadership is that we examine the successes, but rarely the failures (in fact, I’m not sure we count them as 'leaders'). It is, for example, not always the case that a successful leader is extraverted. It’s also not true that someone hailed as a great leader in some aspects excelled at others. Steve Jobs was a brilliant man; Apple was very successful. But was he a good leader? The criteria we use to judge will often come from the theories we embrace.”

Executives and Leadership Development

The recurring, analytical mindset about leadership has had considerable impact on executive thinking. Increasingly, the desire to understand how effective and adaptable leaders are, as well as how they think and act, drives our perspectives on the subject and drives who, how and when we allow opportunity. Business Psychologist Peter Shallard, The Shrink for Entrepreneurs, agrees that the absolute cutting edge of this kind of research — which is also the most important — is the blurry line between the nature and nurture debate.

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"What we now know about neuro-plasticity shows us that the brain is vastly more adaptable than previously believed. While certain people who are great leaders show neurological differences to the control (other 'normal' people) I think the next big question is: Was that neurological difference ALWAYS there?”

"I’ll admit to a huge bias towards nurture, rather than nature,” continued Shallard. “I believe that leadership is a learned skill. Conditioning that occurs in children, during the phase that behavioral psychologists call the 'modeling period' (ages 7-14), may have an enormous impact on this. It’s a critical stage where kids look beyond their parents as behavioral models — they will often quite literally 'hero worship' a particular person in their life; an uncle or aunt, or perhaps some adored fictional character. This model will influence the development of their social skills. That will then be tested as they enter the 'socialization period' (14-21).”

 

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