Are great leaders born or made?

Posted 07 September 2011 by

Are leaders born or made? “Oh, come on… ask us a more original question!”

The truth is that the origins of good leadership are varied. So, asking a black and white question like "Are leaders born or made?" may provide an answer, but not a very useful one.

The mistake that so many of us make when talking about leaders is that we operate on a preconceived stereotype of a single kind of leader. There’s a pervasive illusion that leaders need to be bold, dynamic and extroverted. In other words, we expect our leaders to be driven and to be drivers.

But let us not ignore the starting question entirely – are leaders born or made? According to modern scientific understanding, it appears that roughly 50% of our personality is based on our upbringing and 50% on our genes. So that is who we are. Then there is where we are: one’s potential to be a good leader will depend on whether or not who we are is compatible with the needs of our current situation, organisation, those we are leading, and maybe even our time and culture.

Take Winston Churchill for example: yes, he was a great wartime leader, but much less successful as a peacetime leader. This difference in perceived success seems to have been due to two major things, and how the two interacted. Firstly, the historical circumstances of the times, and secondly, Churchill’s approach.

Churchill’s resolute insistence that Britain would not be defeated was highly effective in motivating the population during a war that could be won. However, the same approach in the face of the unstoppable decline of the British Empire was futile. Churchill’s style suited one circumstance much better than the other; he was a great leader when the times allowed it.

The history of leadership studies shows the variety of factors that could contribute to good leadership. None of these theories is completely off course, nor does any one seem to explain the complete picture. It is a complex one after all. So if the theorists don’t agree, what chance has the pressured leader with a full inbox and battalions of expectant direct reports? How could they be a more effective leader?

The answer lies in self-awareness. Before a leader does anything to try to change or develop, he or she should try to understand who they are. Understanding personality can help to stimulate better self-awareness so that leaders can be more confident in finding the best fit for their skills and applying the right leadership at the right time.

So born or made? Not all of us are born looking like Brad Pitt or Angelia Jolie, but we can still stand in front of a mirror and decide upon a haircut and clothes that will flatter us. The same can be done with our leadership style; we might not have the idealised or stereotypical leadership profile, but a little self-awareness can help us see our best attributes, cast off some of our own biases and put our best foot forward.

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