Are Great Leaders Made or Born?

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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.


“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.


"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).”

In a 2012 report, "Racing the Clock: Will high potentials be ready to lead in time to meet your need?" Decision Pulse uncovered some fascinating statistics on the general state of Leadership Development:

Learning Opportunities

  1. Born-leaning managers may embrace a dominant and authority-focused approach to leadership; they may view asking for many opinions or seeking consensus as weak or ineffective leadership.
  2. Executives who believe leaders are made may prefer a more-collaborative approach; being dominant and focused on rules and formalities may be less effective with them.
  3. Fourty four percent of companies expect to increase total spending on leadership development and executive education.
  4. According to the 2011 ASTD State of the Industry Report, companies will spend an average of $1,228 per employee on learning and development.
  5. Sixty four percent of learning executives say they are focusing on trying to speed up the leadership development process.
  6. Leadership training is three times more effective at teaching knowledge than it is in changing behavior.
  7. Fifty six percent of corporate leaders predict shortages in executive-level leadership.
  8. Nearly three quarters of learning executives will increase their focus on high potentials as emerging leaders this year.
  9. Forty one percent of leadership development programs are not aligned with their organization’s strategy.

Understanding how your company’s top executives think can go a long way to working more effectively. But as the stats suggest, leadership is many things to many people.

As with all things,” says Rutledge, “the context and situation matters. Leadership in an emergency is different than leadership in a tech start-up because the environments demand such different skills to be successful. There has been a shift toward valuing adaptive and transformational leadership that mirrors the impact of social technologies flattening hierarchies and individual voice and agency. When people expect to be informed (at whatever level) and participate online, they aren’t going to want to be passive and out of the loop in the office.”

Rutledge also points to the fact that people now have far more control over information, resulting in frustration at having little control elsewhere. What used to be normal, now feels disrespectful. “In this sense,” says Rutledge, “leadership theories that promote viewing followers as individuals, with thoughts and needs, fits with the current social Zeitgeist and shifting psychology begat of a socially-networked digital age.”

I agree with Rutledge. In times when qualified employees are scarce, we have different priorities for our leaders than when jobs are scarce. In today’s world, we see things like flex time, FedEx days or telecommuting in the light of employee respect, engagement and growth more than the bottom line.

What Can We Learn?

I think it’s clear that each group believes that learning from experience plays a big part in leadership development. But while borns are likely to think that organizations should be selective in who gains access to opportunities, researchers suggests that allowing all employees access to developmental experiences, coaching, mentoring, training and other leadership experiences can improve the natural abilities of borns or help mades develop new skills.

“Studies that track these same variables over long term periods,” says Shallard, “and key developmental ages may uncover the most valuable insights of all: What external stimulus builds great leader’s brains.”

With the debate between nature and nurture still raging on, what are your perspectives on this issue? Are you a born leader? Have you made yourself into one? Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Title image courtesy of MC_PP (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Be sure to check out Tom's last piece, Why Social Media Is So Addictive (And Why Marketers Should Care)

About the author

Tom Lowery

Tom Lowery is a writer, author, training specialist and entrepreneur who spent over thirty years within the 9 to 5 world, helping others make millions. During those years he wrote articles for magazines like Cinescape and Hollywood Then and Now; produced special events for larger projects like UKwithNY, a few dozen stage productions and his own events like MainMission: 2000.

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