By Robert Whitcomb February 3, 2016

Leadership: Are Leaders Born? Or Are They Made?

Leadership is one of those perennial topics in our society that we can’t stop talking, thinking, and writing about.

A search on Google turns up over 400,000,000 results; a search on Amazon brings back over 70,000 books on the topic. Every day, more books are authored, more articles are written, more podcasts are recorded, and more training courses are designed to teach us to be (better) leaders.

Man Male businessman raised his finger up the idea disgusted onlYet, despite this influx of material, only a handful of people stand out as truly exceptional leaders. Throughout our lives and careers, we can identify with people that have inspired us with a vision and motivated us beyond our limits.

I think of people like Mahatma Gandhi, who led a nonviolent revolution against the British, gaining the independence of India. I think of Martin Luther King, who led the Civil Rights movement in the United State, and of Susan B. Anthony who helped to lead the women’s suffrage movement. Great leaders are not just found in social movements, but in businesses, technology, churches, and universities. Great leaders are ubiquitous, but what is it about these people that makes them great?

Is leadership an innate natural quality? Are some people just born with the right genetic makeup to be leaders? Or is leadership a skill that a person learns as he or she matures?

While this post will not be the definitive answer, it does to aim add some clarity to the discussion surrounding the origins of leadership.

Leadership… Is a Relationship.

In order to be a leader, a person has to have two things.

Depositphotos_24813849_m-2015First, and foremost, a person must have a group of people who are following his lead. When we see someone described as a leader, rarely do we get accurate information about the people this person is leading. A group of people, even united behind a common leader, are rarely homogenous. Everyone has his own reasons for following the person, but in many cases, these people are whitewashed by some common elements, like religion, political affiliations, or social class. The elements also tend to enhance the leader’s image, and not the followers’.

The intimate details are rarely examined. What do his followers think of him? Are they following this person because they have to, because there is no else, or because they want to? Are these people empowered to act on their own, or do they need to run everything by their leader? So many questions about the followers are unanswered.

This is odd, since without followers, no one can be a leader.

The second element a person has to have in order be called a leader is a destination. In order to lead people, a person must have some thing to lead them to towards. This could be a new place to call home, a drive to boost sales, or simply a vision for a better tomorrow. Unless there is goal, there is no leadership.

A person working towards a goal without followers is a visionary (or thought leader), and people following someone who has no goal is merely an aimless crowd.

Leadership … Is a Skill.

When leading people, the best followers are ones that are inspired and motivated, as these people will require little guidance or direction. They’re also more apt to pick up the charge in the absence of the leader. People who are coerced into following someone will be resentful and resistant to the leader’s direction.

However, even in situations where people are required to follow someone’s lead, there are some leaders who can inspire. The ability to inspire and motivate may come “naturally” to some people, but ultimately, these are skills. It’s a topic worthy of post of itself, but it requires a person to have a vision, exude confidence, and be able to connect with, listen, and empower people.

Inspiration and motivation are often touted as the most effective styles of leadership. This implies there is some mechanism, some skill, some art to leadership. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, there are 6 styles of leadership, each with strengths and weaknesses.

A good leader is capable of using the right style at the right time, and a great leader is capable of blending them together. This takes time, but anyone can study, practice, and master the skills of leadership.

Leadership … Is Natural. Maybe.

Researchers have discovered that individuals who possess the 10-repeat allele version of the DAT1 gene were more likely to commit moderate rule breaking as youths. These are activities like underage drinking, skipping class, etc. While these activities aren’t valuable in themselves, they represent a person’s willingness to break boundaries, challenge authority, and ultimately learn more–all traits associated with good leaders.

ca78d5ad-753f-4e64-ac9c-fe0ffb660a1fOn the flip side, however, these individuals tend to lack a proactive personality, meaning they often don’t go after their goals. Genetics can give people a head start in being a leader, but ultimately it depends on the person’s actions and habits. It’s easier to make a pot from a lump of clay than a stone, but, in the end, unless the clay is shaped into a pot, the sculptor patiently chipping away at the stone will produce the desired effect.

Additionally, in 2013, researchers discovered a gene, called rs4950, that was prevalent in people who were in leadership roles. It’s not clear what this gene actually does. There is some evidence that it plays a role in the dopamine release system, and thus influences impulsivity and patience. One of the traits of being a good leader is being able to focus on the long term results, knowing which short terms gains are worth going after, and which ones can be dropped.

While this seems to validate the claims of the natural-born leader, in both cases, the researchers cautions that the data represents correlations, and not causation. Thier caution sidesteps the familiar nature versus nurture debate, and implicitly suggests that the leadership trait has always been a result of both genetic predisposition and learned behaviour. A person may be born with long legs, but unless he practices, he will be outrun by a veteran racer.

More than any other part of the body, the human mind is always changing. The person who gets out of bed in the morning is literally not the same as the person who slept. The brain has reshaped itself at night, built new neural networks, flushed out toxins, and has internalized new knowledge.

Activities such as meditation can alter the mind and help build a person’s compassion, empathy, and patience.

People tend to think they do not change over time, but scientists have confirmed that within the span of a decade, a person has fundamentally changed. We tend not to notice it because the changes are small and happen over a period of time, and we internalize them.

In the end, just like anything, what determines if a person will be a leader and how successful he will be depends on his motivations for being a leader, and the daily habits he chooses.

How to Be a Leader

A quick search reveals a number of article that describes the traits associated with leaders. Traits such as empathy, optimism, inspiration, decisiveness, moderation, self-regulation, etc. A person may not possess these traits outright, but there is nothing stopping him from working on developing them.

For example, to build empathy, and individual can volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Placing himself in the shoes of someone he’s angry at quickly kills a person’s anger and helps him gain perspective.

A person who’s indecisive can fake decisiveness by simply taking action on chosen decision. (This has the added benefits of boosting self confidence).

Moderation and self-regulation can be developed by meditation, pausing 3 seconds before answering any question.

Active listening is a technique that can be used to help build connections with people and increase the ability to inspire them.

These are just a few examples. There are all sorts of activities that can be done to help build these traits.

Creative businessIndividuals who hold the genetic factors mentioned above may have be able to pick those traits up quicker, but it’s more than possible to learn these traits with conscious, focused effort. Leadership above all else, is a skill, that’s cultivated by a person’s individual habits, as well as his interactions with other person. A person can mindfully adopt new mindsets, actions, habits, and attitudes in the effort to become a leader.

Then one day, he’ll find himself at the helm with a group of loyal and eager followers. By leading himself to become a leader, a person will gain followers, because people tend to notice when a person is going somewhere, and they want to join.

Those “natural-born” individuals may be more effective leaders, but it’s not a competition, it’s about the quality of the individual’s leadership in the specific situation. As the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War 2, Dwight Eisenhower was a masterful presence. During his public appearances, he held total command and could give concise, sharp answers.

During his presidency, however, he was accused of rambling on during appearances. Eisenhower was well suited to lead military forces, which requires a clear direction and firm command, whereas leading a country requires much more political savvy and polish.

Anyone can become a leader. The question is whether that person is willing to put the effort in.

Let me know in the comments below – do you have natural-born leadership tendencies? Or do you work at it? What are you doing to sharpen your skills?

About the author

Robert Whitcomb

Robert is a software developer with a decade of experiencing in multiple paradigms. He currently focuses on building web applications in ASP.NET as well as business process automation, and can be found on LinkedIn or on Twitter at @delmania.