Oct 28, 2019

Are Leaders Born or Made?

We’ve all heard the phrase “natural born leader” before. It’s this pervasive belief that leadership is an innate skill some people simply have and others don’t. It’s not hard to find listicles and business articles that enumerate the traits of these natural leaders, citing qualities like charisma or decisiveness, and if you think back to the best leaders you’ve worked with or hired in your career, chances are there was an effortless to their behavior and attitude that felt, well, natural. The question is: was it actually natural? Or can leadership be learned? 

Let’s start with something most of us would agree on: good leadership is a skill. And like most skills, there’s no universal definition of what makes the best leader. In the same way chefs can specialize in certain cuisines or musicians can master specific genres, leaders can lead in different ways. One might be data-driven and prone to uncovering consensus. Another might have tremendous instincts for trends and forecasting. Another might be keenly empathetic and inspirational. Again, take a moment to think about the best leaders you’ve ever worked with. They weren’t carbon copies of each other, were they? 

This, of course, is common with any skill. To continue our comparison above, great chefs don’t all make the same bolognese and virtuoso pianists will all play the same Chopin piece just a bit differently. They’ll all do it well but they won’t do it identically. 

Now, let’s get back to the question we posed in the title: “are leaders born or made?” Like all skills, some people are just more likely to be good at leading. To say otherwise would be disingenuous. But the whole point of framing leadership as a skill was to underline that leaders don’t have to be naturally born. Skills can be learned. Leadership can be trained. 

The problem is, a lot of organizations don’t realize this. They have these great individual contributors and they want to keep them around. So they promote them. They give them senior titles and more responsibility and they keep doing well and, eventually, the next step is management. Suddenly, they’re moving from being responsible for some tangible work product into a role where they’re responsible for more than just that. They’re now responsible for people. 

Now, think about the position that newly-promoted manager is in. They’ve been great at their job but suddenly they’re required to have a whole new skillset they’ve never needed before. Think about someone who’s spent years coding who now needs to gather consensus and lead engineers or a saleswoman who is now responsible not just for closing her own deals but for her entire team’s performance. If these people aren’t natural leaders, this could really be a tall order. 

In fact, there’s a real argument they’ve been set up to fail. 57% of frontline managers say they learned their leadership skills through trial and error. And with 50% of company attrition attributable to poor management, companies can’t afford to have new managers winging it and hoping for the best. 

For emerging leaders and new managers, it’s important that you don’t assume being a great contributor translates naturally into being a great leader. Giving them that promotion and responsibility in your company is an investment and you need to continue investing by giving them real leadership training. Everything from internal mentors to leadership books to conferences to virtual coaching solutions should be on the table. In fact, the more of it the better. Because in the same way that leadership is a skill and no two people do it exactly the same, no two people learn how to lead in the exact same way either. They’re going to be drawing from different personal experiences and leaning into different natural traits and that’s something that should be encouraged. 

The key thing to note here is that training and building leaders, whether they were born to do it or not, isn’t something that simply happens. As an HR professional, you actually have a lot of ownership over this. You can invest in solutions that increase the leadership quality of both your natural and learned leaders. You want to look for solutions that don’t overpromise and that take a methodical, personal approach. Because, as we’ve spoken about already, leadership is an inherently personal thing. We all do it differently. But what separates good leaders from not-so-good leaders is that the good ones lead with authenticity. They aren’t playing a role, they’re being themselves. Solutions and approaches that pair emerging leaders with coaches or internal mentors are especially valuable here, as they can help uncover and hone styles that come naturally to your leaders, even if leading itself isn’t wholly natural. Self-awareness is a key part of the equation here and solutions that treat leaders as the individuals they are tend to work better than ones that don’t. 

In the end, the question of whether leaders are born or made isn’t actually the most important question. Rather, the important question is how to get the most out of every leader in your organization. And you can do that by realizing that leadership is a skill that can be learned and improved. It’s like a muscle that gets stronger the more it’s used. Invest in training and give both the emerging and established leaders in your organization the ability to exercise that muscle. 

Give them coaching and mentorship that helps them uncover their style and the right approach for them. Invest in them so they continue investing in you. Managers get a coach to help them with the real-world skills they’re lacking and their teams get smarter, more authentic leadership. Which is the big thing, really. Because whether they were born to lead or learned how to do it, the better they get at it, the more successful your organization becomes. 

If you’d like to learn a little more about how we’re currently training the leaders of the next generation, visit our Lingo Leaders page and get in touch!

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