Are leaders born or made?

| Hamilton, Ontario
Contributed by Rick Hackett, Canada Research Chair, Organizational Behaviour and Human Performance

Leadership abounds – it plays out for good or for bad (see Dilbert) wherever people need to work together to accomplish common goals.

Interest in leadership has become a bit of an obsession. In recent years there has been an explosion of newspaper articles, books, research papers and business cases written about, or by, renowned leaders. Leadership is also big business, with a thriving multi-billion dollar industry in identifying, recruiting, assessing and developing leader talent.

So then, what “does it take” to be an effective leader; and are leaders “born” or “made?”

dilbert

Well, we know that effective leaders are born to some extent, with genetic and dispositional tendencies that are a “good fit” for the role. More important, they are also made through life experience and formal developmental efforts. Successful leadership means effective decision making and priority setting in uncertain environments, even in the face of economic and technological change; all this while balancing a myriad of often conflicting demands from their subordinates, bosses, and customers.

On the “leaders are born side” we know that extroversion, conscientiousness (i.e. planful, achievement-oriented, reliable, persevering), openness to new experiences, emotional stability, and general intelligence all contribute to a foundation for leadership effectiveness. These characteristics have been shown to be helpful across organizations, sectors, nations and organizational levels, and are often the focus of formal questionnaire-based assessments of leadership potential.

On the “leaders are made side”, in-born characteristics make it easier and more natural to seek out experiences that build a repertoire of leadership competencies. These include the development of written and oral communications skills, the confidence required to inspire and influence others (“charisma”), social adeptness and cultural intelligence. These talents are most often measured through interviews and simulations of typical leadership tasks (e.g. conducting a mock performance review, conducting a coaching session; prioritizing and delegating a set of projects; making an inspirational speech; and resolving scenario based management dilemmas).

So, putting the “born” and “made” side perspectives together, people who are conscientious, extraverted, open to new experience, emotionally stable, and intelligent (quick to learn) also tend to proactively seek out competence-building experiences. This happens through formal education, such as the MBA, targeted leadership development workshops, and accumulated career-building work experience.

In terms of new and contemporary ideas on leadership character, recent work with my co-investigator Dr. Gordon Wang has identified several virtues that predict both leader effectiveness and employee well-being:

  • Prudence
  • Temperance
  • Justice/Fairness (politics kept to a minimum!)
  • Humanness
  • Courage
  • Truthfulness

We believe that while individuals are born with varying inclinations toward these virtues, only through practicing the virtues daily, and across situations, do they become habit forming and an ingrained part of one’s character. Our research is now focusing on character development interventions in leadership.

Rick Hackett

Dr. Rick Hackett is a professor of Human Resources & Management at DeGroote and currently holds the Canada Research Chair in Organizational Behaviour and Human Performance. Dr. Hackett is studying the links between leadership, work attitudes and performance within the nursing profession.

13 thoughts on "Are leaders born or made?"

  1. Ian Turner says:

    An excellent article Dr. Hackett, and one I agree with completely. The only question I’d pose back to you is why are there so many long-tenured, so-called ‘successful’ leaders out there today, especially in the corporate sphere that are lacking in Justice/Fairness, Humanness and Truthfulness, to name but a few key characteristics. It seems to be epidemic at times, and these are often the same leaders that climb the corporate ladder the fastest and highest! Seems like a real disconnect. I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue, thanks

    Ian T. MBA ’00

    1. Rick Hackett says:

      Hello Ian, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Perhaps the “availability heuristic” is at play here. That is, reports of scandals and moral improprieties of our leaders receive considerable press coverage, thereby becoming highly salient to us. Such salience results in us overestimating the prevalence of the problem. We simply hear less about the many successful morally upright managers. Also, it is enduring success we’re after; not fleeting success. Think Bernie Ebbers and WorldCom, as well as Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron. Finally, you can likely be a “successful” leader, at least over the short term, without these virtues, but I argue that you can be more successful with them — that these virtues contribute to leader effectiveness beyond the contribution of the knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences, and political astuteness typically associated with effective leaders. For information on the “availability heuristic” see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic

  2. Dr. Hackett:
    I graduated with an MBA (in Finance) from the DeGroote School of Business in 1991. Since I interact with leaders in all facets of business, I have developed my own theories on how leaders emerge and what constitutes an effective leader. In fact, I have lectured on these and related topics. I focus on the concept of whether leadership is a skill that is innate or learned. Basically, I believe that leaders emerge by necessity that is often driven by circumstance rather than a preconceived desire or plan. However, I subscribe to your theory that individuals are born with varying inclinations toward certain virtues and that only through consistent development and application of those virtues in their daily life do they become habit forming and an ingrained part of one’s character.
    You can view part of my lecture on YouTube at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urPknNHgEMc
    I would welcome the opportunity to have a chat and explore these concepts together. My complete contact information is provided on my website.

  3. Nelly Emmanuel says:

    the leader are born not made

  4. tavonga says:

    are there any theories to justify the debate

    1. Rick Hackett says:

      Hi there, sure, there are theories to speak to this issue and I refer to you a book very recently published which takes a highly evidenced-based approach to reviewing the body of knowledge of leadership across different realms. The book I am referring to is the science of leadership by Professor Julian Barling of Queens University which can be found at the link below. He devotes a section specifically on the topic of whether leaders are “born or made”.

      Happy reading.

      http://www.amazon.ca/The-Science-Leadership-Research-Organizational/dp/0199757011

  5. mukhtaar ali mustaf says:

    hello i know that is agreat quation i bleive the sayes leadership is born example our provet mohamed peace being abon him .

  6. Kunal says:

    I am doing an essay on this topic for my management paper and looking for some good academic articles on this topic. Anyone can recommend good articles?. Thanks.

  7. Rick Hackett says:

    Go to Julian Barling’s book, referenced above. It contains a section on this very topic, and cites relevant and recent research on this topic.

  8. Warmate Esther says:

    Can an extroverted and conscentious individual without good communication skills become a good leader?

  9. Warmate Esther says:

    I know within me lies some innate qualities of effective leadership but i’ve not had the opportunity to participate in any training nor giving a position to lead. How do i develop those traits in me?

  10. Rick Hackett says:

    Esther, communications skills are essential for effective leadership, and communication comes in many forms, both verbal and nonverbal, one-to-one and one-to-many. So, formal communications programs can certainly help, and leadership development and training programs have been shown to help as well. Further, emulating leadership effectiveness is another strategy, and placing yourself in situations for practicing leadership and receiving feedback.

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