CEP: Editorial - Are Leaders Born or Made?

August
2013

Countless books and articles have been written about leadership — on such topics as the differences between managing and leading, what makes a good leader, and how to become a better leader, among others. One frequent topic: Are leaders born or made?

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) posed this question to C-level executives of companies in 53 countries (www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/research/areleadersbornormade.pdf). Slightly more than half (53.4%) of the top executives think leaders are made, about a fifth (19.1%) think they are born, and a little more than a quarter (28.5%) think leaders are both born and made. To explore how these beliefs play out in the workplace, the CCL researchers asked those at both ends of the spectrum, the Borns and the Mades, about a variety of leadership topics.

Borns and Mades agree that 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.

What does this mean for you? Understanding how your company’s top executives think people become leaders can help you work more effectively with those executives and be a more-effective leader, the surveyors say. For instance, 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. On the other hand, 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.

Both groups believe that learning from experience is important for developing leaders. Borns, however, are likely to think that organizations should be selective in who gets developmental opportunities, and offer such opportunities only to those employees judged most likely to benefit from them. The researchers point out, though, that providing all employees access to developmental experiences, coaching, mentoring, training, and other leadership experiences can improve an organization’s leadership — whether such experiences draw out and boost the natural abilities of Borns or help Mades develop new skills.

Erika Andersen, founding partner of Proteus International and a Forbes contributor, points out that, like most things, leadership capability falls along a bell curve. People at the top of the curve, those who might be thought of as born leaders, start out very good and get better. Those at the bottom of the curve will never be good leaders no matter how hard they try because they don’t have the innate wiring. The majority of us fall in the middle of the curve, where the potential to “make” a leader lies. “Most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become good, even great leaders,” she says. The single most powerful way to grow as a leader, she advises, is to become truly self-aware. She offers suggestions on ways to do this in a post on her How Work Works blog, www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/11/21/are-leaders-born-or-made.

For more thoughts on leadership, especially if you are new to a leadership role, see this month’s Career Corner article, “Becoming a Leader,” p. 30.

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