The Myth of Innate Leadership

The Myth of Innate LeadershipWhen you hear something repeatedly put forward as fact, it begins to take on a sacred truth that is hard to disprove:  “The world is flat.”  “Elephants have uniquely excellent memory.”  “Women are more emotional than men.”  And another:  “Leaders are born, not made.”

Well, we’ve proven the world is not flat, we’ve debunked the notion that women carry a heavier emotional load than men, and there are even questions being raised about the uniqueness of elephant memory.  But somehow, stubbornly, the notion that leadership is innate and can’t be learned still is the dirty little prejudice many of us carry.  And sadly, it gets in the way of our own development as well as the development of others.

Let’s be clear.  Not everyone wants to be a leader.  Not everyone sees leadership as attractive, or wants to invest in the development, or wants to take on the tradeoffs needed in time and focus.  Those are valid choices.  But it doesn’t mean these people are incapable of leadership.

But, as Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner note in their book, The Leadership Challenge, leadership is an “observable, learnable set of practices”.  They further caution that “The belief that leadership can’t be learned is a powerful deterrent to leadership development.”

Numerous studies have borne out this nature vs. nurture question, including studies of twins.  What most researchers agree is that there are components of ‘nature’ (what we’re born with) that dispose us to be more or less successful leaders.  For example, a degree of intelligence is a price of admission, and good ‘social intelligence’ – understanding of social processes and situations – is helpful, along with a modicum of innate empathy.  Some studies suggest that perhaps as much as 30% of leadership success is determined by what we bring to the table from birth.  But studies have also shown that even the innate 30% is not put to use as leadership capability without learning additional skills.

So the real answer to the ‘nature or nurture’ question is ‘some of both, but development – learning and experience – is a large share of the equation’.

As with any set of beliefs, your beliefs about ‘born’ vs. ‘made’ influence how you see and act in the world.

People who believe that leaders are born have a more autonomous, formal view of leadership.  A 2012 study by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that people who believe leaders are ‘born’ also believe leaders “are more successful when they are authority oriented (e.g., follow protocol, hierarchical, and status-oriented)”. They “believe that formality in leaders makes them more effective, and are more likely to believe that leaders need to be rule-abiding to be successful”.  In contrast, those who believe leaders are ‘made’ see leadership as more collaborative and influence-oriented.

Beliefs around ‘born’ vs. ‘made’ also influence selection and development of leaders.  Dr. Ronald Riggio, writing about his research in Psychology Today, states, “executives who believe that leaders are born, give less attention to leader development, both their own personal development as well the development of those they lead. They are focused on selecting leaders with the “right stuff,” and expecting that those leaders’ natural abilities will mean organizational success.”

Do you see yourself in these descriptions?

If you want to assure your viewpoint is more balanced and that you give people (and yourself) all that’s needed to become good leaders, you’ll need to add development to the repertoire.

Developing leaders is not so much a classroom activity as it is an artistic endeavor.  To be an artist, you benefit by the conceptual knowledge: how light is depicted, how colors are created, how to establish proportion.  But you can’t really become an artist without practicing, messing up, and practicing some more, often with the guidance of someone who can see and comment on how to improve.  And so it is with leadership.

There is plenty of information available on leadership development, so we won’t tackle that here, except to suggest that it is demonstrably helpful in bringing out the qualities that lead to greatest success – and that development of leadership is all about opportunity to experience it and learn from those experiences.

Consider your own beliefs – are they getting in the way of you being the best leader you can be?  Are they causing you to use only a fraction of the capacity of others?  It might be time to get your beliefs in synch with the evidence.


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

Did you enjoy this article?  Please join our email list to receive a bi-weekly blog digest. Know someone else who would like this article?  Share it with them using the buttons below:

2 thoughts on “The Myth of Innate Leadership

  1. Good points. When leaders are born, often the families have certain behavioral traits that worked at the time that worked for that era. Today with such a rich and diverse landscape, people can become leaders in so many ways.

    Are you a leader because you manage things? Are you a leader because of how you manage people? What about how you lead people? All leaders.

    There are so many ways on how we can lead. And the irony is if you and your teams buy into “leaders are born, not made” you and your team are going to fail a heck of a lot more often.

  2. Thank you for your contribution, Chris. You are right that the beauty of leadership is that we each bring different capacities to the table, and together, we create good leadership of our organizations.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *