Oct 28, 2019

Are leaders born or made?

We’ve all heard the phrase “natural born leader” before. It’s this pervasive belief that people are born with natural leadership skills that can put people off applying for coaching for leadership development. Deep down they believe that leadership is an innate skill some people simply have and others don’t. Are leaders born or made though? In reality, leadership is a skill that can be learned.

It’s not hard to find business articles that enumerate the traits of these natural leaders, citing qualities like charisma or decisiveness. If you think back to the best leaders you’ve worked with or hired in your career, chances are there was an effortlessness to their behavior and attitude that felt, well, natural. The question is: was it actually natural? Or can leadership be taught? 

Leadership Skills Or Magical Sauce? 

Let’s start with something most of us would agree on: good leadership is a skill. But are great leaders born or made? 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, and leaders can lead in different ways. So, you might assume that great chefs are born and not made because of some special, hard to define magic touch they seem to have. Likewise, the question “are great leaders born or made” can seem to need a mystical answer but it doesn’t have to be.

One leader might be data-driven, for example, and prone to uncovering consensus. Another might have tremendous instincts for trends and forecasting. Yet 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 all skills that natural-born leaders possess. To continue our comparison above, great chefs don’t all make the same bolognese. Similarly, 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 because they tap into a deep essence that defines only them. That’s how leaders are made, by knowing who they are and what values they hold. 

Leadership Can Be Taught

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. Natural leadership skills can be learned. Leadership can be trained. 

The problem is that many organizations don’t realize that you can learn to be a leader. They have great individual contributors and want to keep them around. So, they promote them, give them senior titles and more responsibility. As they then keep doing well the next step is eventually 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. 

Support Your New Managers 

Now, think about the position that the newly promoted manager is in. They’ve been great at their job but suddenly they’re required to have a whole new skill set they’ve never needed or trained on before. Think about someone who’s spent years coding who now needs to gather consensus and lead engineers. What about the 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, that’s why coaching skills for leaders even exist. How else are people going to learn to transition from problem-solving to influencing? 

Actually, there’s a real argument they’ve been set up to fail which is how leaders are made today, sadly. For instance, 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. Instead, high-performing companies invest in coaching for leadership development and constantly evaluate employee retention. It’s a well-known saying that people leave their bosses and not the company. 

The Transition from Individual Contributor to Leader 

So, can you learn to be a leader? The short answer is yes. The first step is that, for emerging leaders and new managers, it’s important you don’t assume that great contributors instinctively transition into being natural-born leaders. Giving them that promotion and leadership responsibility in your company is an investment. It doesn’t just stop there though because you need to continue investing by giving them real leadership training. 

Everything from internal mentors, leadership books to conferences and virtual leadership coaching services should be on the table. Another useful tool is to teach coaching skills to leaders so that they can better mentor and guide others. At the same time, they’ll gradually start stepping out of the weeds. In fact, the more of these developmental actions the better. You’ll then soon see just how much leadership is a skill that can be learned. 

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, which should be encouraged. In practice, building on and leveraging their innate strengths is how leaders are made, not born. 

Leadership Coaching 

The key thing to note here is that there are benefits of leadership training, whether they were born to do it or not. As an L&D  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 over-promise and that take a methodical, personal and tailored approach. Because, as we’ve spoken about already, leadership is an inherently personal thing. We all do it differently but the point is that leaders are made, not born. 

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 for emerging leader coaching like pairing them with 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 and Authenticity  

Self-awareness is a key part of the equation here and solutions that treat leaders as individuals tend to work better than ones that don’t. That’s part of the evidence that leaders are not born but made. Essentially, scientists have now proven that our brains can be re-wired and we can learn self-awareness. Of course, for some people, the hurdle might be too great, and the internal motivation might be lacking. Nevertheless, we all have positive qualities to build on to become great leaders should we wish to.

In the end, the question “are leaders born or made” isn’t actually the most important question. Rather, the important question is how to enable the leaders in your organization to be the best version of themselves. And you can do that by realizing that leadership is a group of skills that can be learned and improved. It’s like a muscle that gets stronger with use. Invest in training and give both the emerging and established leaders in your organization the ability to exercise that muscle. 

How You Can Develop Your Leaders

Give them coaching and mentorship that helps them uncover their style with 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. Moreover, they become more fulfilled and able to go that extra mile. 

Are leaders born or made is a debate that will never end in the same way that the nurture versus nature argument will always continue. Perhaps the answer is a bit of both. Nevertheless, the evidence shows that you can support your people to become more effective leaders by building on their strengths, raising their self-awareness and giving them the space to be themselves. At Lingo Live, we tailor strengths-based coaching for leaders to discover who they are and who they can grow into. Through this coaching, they learn to be an authentic version of themselves whilst operating at their very best. Everybody wins. 


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