Great Leaders – Born or Made

A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.
~Nelson Mandela

The debate as to whether a great leader is born or made has been raging for practically as long as there have even been leaders. One suspects that before recorded history, it might have gone something like this:

Grud: Og lucky. Born with smart that make him head honcho.

Durb: No, Og boss because Og work hard, learn how lead good.

Grud: You wrong, Durb. Og parents make smart kids. Og littermates smart too.

And on it goes…

So, is it nature or nurture? Could it be a bit of both?

Recent Studies Suggest Leaders Could Be Born

On April 12, 2013, an article in the Daily Mail by Amanda Williams discussed the theory that great leaders may have brains that are wired in such a way that they have an edge when it comes to memory functions and decision-making skills. The results of the study would seem to suggest that natural (or “born”) leaders have a bit more grey matter in areas that control memory and decision-making, and this gives them an edge when it comes to filling leadership roles.

Another study, conducted by researchers at University College London, found that a startling number of subjects who were in supervisory positions had a gene known as rs4950. Taken together, these studies suggest that there is a “leadership gene,” and that born leaders could be identified by using brain scans.

We Can Use Science to Separate the Wheat from the Chaff!

Not so fast. It would be fabulous if there were, indeed, a sort of shortcut that would allow us to identify potential leaders – think of the competitive advantage that would give your business. It would be a huge mistake, though, to think that you don’t have to consider individual personalities. Say you have a world-class cricket player who rises to the top of his sport based on what appears to be pure natural ability. He doesn’t work all that hard, doesn’t do much of anything special, in fact, except show up for the match. Obviously, he was born talented. His twin brother shares the same genetic material, but sits home watching telly and drinking all day. Much good genetics are going to do if you want to recruit him for the team. He was born with the same genetic material with which his brother was blessed, but he lacks motivation and interest.

Does Genetic Makeup Make a Huge Difference?

Genetic background may give a bit of an advantage, but it comes down to what a person does with what they’ve been given. We expect that leaders will be able to motivate a group to achieve success. We expect them to be driven and charismatic, and to be willing to take on the responsibility of making decisions. These are all traits that are developed. No one is born with them.

So What Makes a Great Leader?

No matter what you’re born with, if you don’t learn, you don’t lead. Leading requires constant learning and upgrading of the skills that are relevant to your position within your organization. Great leaders try things out, and then evaluate the results. They learn from their mistakes. They also ask for feedback from co-workers and bosses. Finally, they know how to adjust their behaviour in order to achieve better results. All this is learned behaviour.

Learning how to lead is an endless process of seeking out opportunities and improving skills. Great leaders will typically show indications of their potential in late childhood and early adolescence, and will develop that potential on their journey through life.

It’s Not What You Have, It’s What You Do with It

Simply stated, some great leaders may be born with better “raw material.” But it’s what a person does with that material that makes the difference between the great and the merely adequate, or the adequate and the utterly useless.

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