Another Look at Leadership: Nature, Nurture or Destiny?

4 minute read
Stephen Fishman avatar

We seem to have struck a nerve with two articles last week on leadership psychology. Both stories debated the age old question of whether leaders are born or made. But if you ask me, this question is not only a false dichotomy but a highly dangerous one.

Propensity and Sufficiency

The idea that leaders can be "born" is just plain hogwash. People aren't born anything other than people. People are clearly born with aptitudes, but to make the leap that aptitude equals destination is reaching too far.

Aptitudes can be thought of as propensities, as in "Alex was born with an aptitude for math and science. Given that Alex is showing a natural talent in these areas, Alex can be said to have an undefined higher likelihood to be successful if he chooses to pursue a career in these fields than someone who does not have any natural aptitude in math and science."

Some things the above example does not say:

  • Alex is certain to succeed in any career with math and science
  • Alex is certain to exceed the success of a person without the same level of aptitude

The three reasons the example doesn't say these things are:

  • Aptitude is not sufficient to ensure success at anything
  • The higher probability referenced in the example is spread across six billion people and attempts to quantify it for Alex as an individual are relatively meaningless
  • Effort beats talent when talent shows no effort

A propensity to succeed at something is not a guarantee of success. Rather, it is only a start in the right direction. If a person does not capitalize on an aptitude with a combination of effort, a conducive environment and appropriate opportunities to build upon and demonstrate it, then he ends with unfulfilled potential.

Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist, author and speaker, goes even further in his book, Outliers when he discusses the 10,000 hour rule. Quoting neurologist Daniel Levitin, he notes, "... Ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything."

To devote 10,000 hours to anything, Gladwell continues, requires two things: environment and opportunity. He supports his argument with a rich set of examples ranging from basketball and chess to computer science and business. Greatness, he concludes, has more to do with effort, opportunity and environment than aptitude.

Denial of Transcendence and Transformation

To argue that leaders are born that way is close to arguing that people are incapable of transcending their circumstances or that people are incapable of serious, lasting change. Transcendence and transformation might not be everyday occurrences, but should we deny their existence?

Leadership potential exists in everyone. Just because it may only reveal itself during an extreme event does not mean it is not there.

Learning Opportunities

What merit is there in suggesting your destiny is controlled by your birth — rather than the choices you make?

Anyone can acquire almost all leadership skills given the right circumstances and education. In fact, you can argue that adverse circumstances are more important precursors to change the world leadership than genetics, whether you consider an assassination attempt on a Pakistani school student and education activist named Malala Yousafzai or the effects of slavery on an orphan named Frederick Douglass.

What are we really suggesting when we say "leaders are born"? Is there a leadership fairy who sprinkles magic leader dust on a mother just before she gives birth? Or do we mean some people are born into the right environment (i.e., nurture)?

The Power of the Question

Make no mistake, I am not saying that the writers of the two previously published articles on CMSWire.com are advocates for eugenics.

What I am saying is that good leaders know questions are more powerful than answers. It is the responsibility of leaders to ask good and meaningful questions as well as to refrain from asking questions that empower and allow narratives of division to flourish. Leaders don't shy away from the responsibility of how others act upon their words and messages. They embrace it.

The potential for leadership is in each one of us.  Stop worrying if you have "the magic it" and go find a cause you believe in. Whatever that cause, it needs more leaders — and it is waiting for you.

In my opinion, leaders are neither born nor made. They are called forth. The only question is whether or not those called are ready to listen.

About the author

Stephen Fishman

Stephen holds a M.S. in Management from The Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering also from Georgia Tech. Stephen has worked as a practitioner and leader across business, design and technology domains for enterprises and brands like PepsiCo, AutoTrader, Cummins, Chick-fil-A, the American Cancer Society, the CDC, Macy's, GM, Home Depot, Lowe's and others.