Are Leaders Born or Made? The Truth May Surprise You

'Management is the opportunity to help people become better people. Practiced that way, it's a magnificent profession.' ~ Clayton ChristensenClick To Tweet

If you have ever been responsible for managing or coaching managers, I guarantee you have asked yourself this question – probably more than once. In fact virtually every leadership development course I’ve attended throughout my career includes the question “are Leaders Born or Made” somewhere in the marketing material. The holy grail of leadership development involves taking the most unlikely candidate and transforming them into a confident, capable leader…

Are leaders born or made

When we are wanting to improve our leadership, it makes us feel better to think that leaders can be made… but when we’re struggling with a team member who just doesn’t seem to ‘get it’, it’s much easier to believe that maybe they might be born after all…

Now this territory is pretty well traversed, and the conventional wisdom is that leaders are made. But after a brief foray well outside my comfort zone this week, I’d like to get a streak going… so I’m going to play contrarian – besides, I enjoy being mischievous.

Read along and let’s see where it takes us.

Are leaders born or made?

The difference between management and leadership

'Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.' ~ Peter DruckerClick To Tweet

A great deal of time has been spent drawing distinctions between leadership and management. I’ve done it myself. A quick Google search shows some nine million results.

Are leaders born or made

Art Petty wrote a brilliant article a while ago about why the distinction means very little, and that instead the focus should go on ensuring you develop managers into leaders. Which is a nice take on the issue.

Because fundamentally, it must be accepted that there are some people who manage but are not leaders, some people who are leaders but are not managers, some who are both, and many who are neither.

Are leaders born or made

The simplest distinction is that management is a set of processes and tools for managing tasks, and leadership is a set of personal competencies which enable individual contributors to be connected to the ‘why’ behind the tasks, and to be nurtured and encouraged to grow and develop.

'Leadership contains certain elements of good management, but it requires that you inspire, that you build durable trust. For an organization to be not just good but to win, leadership means evoking participation larger than the job description, commitment deeper than any job contract's wording.' ~ Stanley A. McChrystalClick To Tweet

So while it’s true that you can be a manager without being a leader, it’s very hard to be successful over the long term if all you are is a manager skilled at using the systems and processes of control and direction.

Are leaders born or made

Fundamentally, this is the point that Art Petty is making. While you can be a manager without being a leader, you shouldn’t be. And your organisation can’t really afford for you to be. So organisations need to focus on ensuring that all their managers are also leaders…

Who benefits from the ‘making’ of leaders?

The professional leadership development industry needs us to believe that leaders can be ‘made’. The premise of leadership development training is that someone struggling in this area, can improve by learning the skills and tools required.

It’s also encouraging and hopeful to believe that leaders can be made. We all want to think that people can achieve great things with hard work and determination. The idea of a subset of ‘special’ people destined for leadership doesn’t gel well with our egalitarian and meritocratic preferences.

So… are leaders born or made?

I was having this exact discussion with a good friend a few days ago. She explained to me that within te Ao Māori (the Māori world), young people with the potential for leadership within iwi (tribes) are identified at a very young age, and their potential is nurtured throughout their upbringing. They spend more time with, and learn from, current iwi leaders. They are given greater responsibility within their iwi. They are ‘pushed’ and encouraged into taking on roles that they normally wouldn’t perform. Many others are not offered the same opportunities.

On the face of it, this seems to be evidence that leaders are born with a set of identifiable character traits that pre-destine them for leadership roles. Born: 1 – Made: 0

On the other hand, a mentor of mine – a very capable and seemingly ‘natural’ leader, had this to offer when I raised this topic with him: that although he could think of times in his youth when he had taken on a leadership role, he had a suite of tendencies that meant he was an unlikely contender for leadership, and that he had always assumed were ‘who he was’ – immutable. However, with deliberate effort, and commitment, and support, he’d been able to learn how to mitigate them, and in fact become a very successful leader.

Evidence that natural tendencies and dispositions do not pre-destine who can succeed in leadership. Born: 1 – Made: 1

But here’s the thing that makes me sceptical about the ‘simplicity’ of the “are leaders born or made” conventional wisdom: if anyone can become a leader… why don’t they?

There are so many reasons why being a leader is great:

  • Society values leaders
  • We ascribe higher levels of charisma to people in leadership roles
  • Leaders are able to achieve great things through the exercise of their leadership
  • Organisations value leaders and pay them more
  • Leaders can (and regularly do) change the world
  • Being in a leadership role tends to increase our autonomy and our ability to feel fulfilled and engaged

This is pretty compelling stuff!

Why aren’t there more leaders? What don’t they get about this?

Where there’s a will… there’s a way

Yes it’s a cliche, but my theory is simple…

Anyone can become a leader… if they decide to.

There are some people who are more naturally inclined towards the dispositions and mindset of a leader, but for others it’s a lot more work.

And in my experience, not everybody is up for that much work.

But most importantly, it’s about deciding.

  • Deciding to grow
  • Deciding to change
  • Deciding to learn
  • Deciding to be vulnerable

It’s about being purposeful. It’s about being intentional.

And it’s about being a little bit brave.

So are leaders born or made?

The answer, I think, is “it depends”.

You cannot make someone a leader who hasn’t decided they want to lead…

You cannot make someone a leader who does not agree that what they are doing now isn’t leadership…

You cannot make someone more emotionally intelligent, or persistent, or ‘gritty’…

But you can offer to help them once their decision has been made.

'All coaching is, is taking a player where he can't take himself.' ~ Bill McCartneyClick To Tweet

That’s your job…. How’s that going?

Are leaders born or made


Leading From Within – Getting Started

High AchieverCan you imagine what would happen if all the high achievers in the world actually stood up and were counted? Little problems, big problems, global problems, local problems… they’d all become things that could be solved. Not quickly, but gradually,

To whet your appetite, I’ve created a little sneak peak of the system I’ve created to do just that. It’s an ebook called Leading From Within: Getting Started.

You can get it in three different ways, depending on your preference:

But whatever you do, don’t settle for another year of feeling unfulfilled. It’s a massive waste, considering your talent, skill and experience.

Let’s make a difference, and get something happening!

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