Insights Blog

By Holly Valovick
on Jul 6, 2017
  • Leadership Development
Are Leaders Born or Made

Acclaimed NFL "Man of the Decade" Vince Lombardi, who, as a coach, never had a losing season, famously stated: "Leaders aren't born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work." But does research bear out his claim?

In fact, research does indicate that Lombardi was on the right track. A 2013 study from The Leadership Quarterly estimated leadership to be 24% genetic and 76% learned; similarly, another study the following year from the University of Illinois put the ratio at 30% genetic and 70% learned. In essence, although some people may be born with innate qualities that predispose them to being leaders, such as the social intelligence and charisma that motivates others to work together, even those who are not naturally gifted with leadership acumen can acquire it, building their skills with practice, experience, and mentoring.

In an interesting continuation of the University of Illinois results, authors Dr. Kari Keating, Dr. David Rosch, and Lisa Burgoon tracked a group of 165 undergraduate students at the university who were enrolled in an introductory leadership theory course. They found that leadership development follows a specific progression, which they call being "ready, willing, and able" to lead; translated, someone first needs the motivation to lead, then the willingness to learn the skills necessary to practice leadership, and finally, the opportunity to express those skills by actually leading. Herein enters the combination of innate and learned leadership – those students who began the course with "leadership readiness," seeing themselves as leaders because of their inborn personality traits, were able to learn and improve their leadership skills more quickly.

Among the innate skills associated with leadership are extroversion, boldness, assertiveness, risk-taking, social intelligence, and empathy. Connson Chou Locke, PhD, a researcher and professor of organizational behavior and leadership, brings yet another point to the table in relation to these skills. She differentiates between leadership effectiveness (i.e. performance as a leader) and leadership emergence (i.e. being selected for a leadership role), concluding that inborn traits are more strongly associated with leadership emergence. She goes on to explain that people who are more extroverted or intelligent tend to have more influence on their peer group ("born leaders"); however, they don't necessarily perform better in formal leadership positions, where leadership effectiveness is dependent on the context, the type of job, and the person's ability to develop leadership skills, which cannot be predicted by their traits ("made leaders"). Her research indicates that the relationship between leadership effectiveness and extroversion or intelligence is, in fact, very weak. She considers it unfortunate that leaders are often chosen based on traits such as extroversion, charisma, and intelligence (or perceived intelligence), as their subsequent performance frequently does not live up to others' expectations.

Leadership is, certainly, a very complex role, combining many facets of personality and experience. In the end, the best leader is not truly born or made, but one who is aware of his or her own talents and limitations, willing to use them to the best effect, and open to consistently working to be more effective.