Is Leadership a Gift or a Developed Skill?
November 01, 2022
Whether you’re naturally inclined to motivate and inspire or lack the “special sauce” entirely, becoming a truly great leader takes time—and effort.
Are leaders born or made? It’s a loaded question, particularly for those who aspire to found a company, power a movement, or motivate others to achieve success.
Consider Alexander the Great, a figure who personifies “the special sauce" of mark-makers. Born the son of Philip II in 356 BC, the young Macedonian king went on to conquer the Persian empire, reunite Greece, and restore the Corinthian League. As the self-proclaimed “Son of Zeus", he led with the conviction that any determined and able person could accomplish anything he set his mind to.
But Alexander lends another story to the history books too, which is the tragic case of what happens when power breeds arrogance. By the time of his death in 323 BC, he hadn’t given thought to selecting an heir or setting up any sort of government to function his absence. His final words were "I foresee a great funeral contest over me," and he was right. His closest friends and trusted commanders would fight for control of his empire for nearly 40 years.
Despite his shortcomings, few figures throughout history are as venerated as Alexander the Great. In an amazing 11-year journey of conquest, he served as a paragon of leadership that changed the history of civilization and shaped the world as we know it today.
But we can’t ignore training. From a very young age, Alexander’s parents made clear his destiny to conquer the Persian Empire. He also accompanied his father on several military campaigns and was tutored by Aristotle—yes, Aristotle—on everything from city politics and ethics to public speaking, logic, and nature.
If Alexander’s story proves anything, it’s that certain inherent characteristics, like natural charisma or a way with words, make it easier for some to lead. At the same time, personality alone can't ensure success (or failure) as a leader. In the end, genetics and training are both factors in determining leadership ability, making the “nature versus nurture" debate more of a sliding scale.
Leadership Styles: The Basics
Most professionals develop their own style of leadership based on factors like experience and personality, as well as the specific needs of their team and its organizational culture. While every leader is different, some leadership styles are more commonly used in the workplace than others.
The first major study of leadership styles was performed in 1939 by psychologist Kurt Lewin, who led a group of researchers to identify the three distinct approaches to guiding individuals, teams, and entire organizations. They include:
- Autocratic: These leaders use their authority to impose ways of working and often make strategic decisions without consulting their team. Modern-day examples of leaders who prefer the “my way or the highway" technique include Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller Sr., and U.S. President Richard M. Nixon.
- Participative: Also called “democratic leaders," those who employ this approach usually involve their followers in the decision-making process by encouraging participation from and delegating authority to their team. Many U.S. presidents stand as living examples of the democratic/participative leadership style, including Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter, and John F. Kennedy.
- Delegative: This leader type is synonymous with a “laissez-faire" or “free rein" style, which allows highly motivated and capable subordinates the freedom to make many decisions and to perform work in the manner that suits them best. Examples of delegative leaders include Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet.
Irrespective of leadership styles, research shows that several qualities separate successful leaders from their not-so-successful counterparts. A 2003 study on personality and leadership reveals that good leaders are ambitious, curious, and sociable. Integrity is another crucial trait, one that allows leaders to create a work culture where their team feels valued and supported.
The Leadership Gene
That some people are born with certain talents and attributes that increase their suitability for certain roles is a difficult notion to dispute, especially as it’s increasingly becoming factual.
In 2012, researchers at University College London, Harvard University, New York University, and the University of California - San Diego found that an inherited DNA sequence called “rs4950" is a specific genotype associated with the tendency to occupy a leadership position.
According to their findings, individuals who hold leadership positions are 24 percent more likely to have children who inherit a predisposition to leadership roles.
These findings fall in line with the belief of the father of management, Peter Drucker, who said, “Leadership requires talent. This gift is rare. In the world of management, the best managers are in limited numbers, and the leaders among them are many times less."
Still, while leadership is in part a genetic trait, the researchers note that more study is needed to prove the genotype's role in creating leaders. In essence, this means a better understanding of how upbringing helps develop leadership skills.
Leadership as a Learned Skill
While some leadership traits—like curiosity, compassion, and a willingness to learn—are innate, others can be developed. Meaning, it’s possible to cultivate your leadership skills.
A 2014 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign further sheds light on leadership as a learned skill through leadership courses offered at the school.
"In only 15 weeks in our introductory class, students reported significant gains in three important components of leadership: self-efficacy, or confidence in their ability to lead; skills; and motivation to lead," says Professor Kari Keating, who teaches leadership courses in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
Professor David Rosch, who was also involved in the study, compares the process of developing leadership abilities to the three-legged stool of readiness, willingness, and ableness. “You can't really move on to the other legs of the stool until you've achieved a certain amount of this readiness," he explains.
You can develop leadership skills through any number of master's degrees or even through a certificate program like the one offered by the Harvard Kennedy School.
The Leadership Gap
According to a 2017 report by Price Waterhouse Coopers, 75 percent of hiring managers believe leadership skills are hard to find in recruits. Another Deloitte study indicates that 87 percent of companies aren’t effective at building global leaders.
These findings are concerning, especially in today's business environment, where studies show that 58 percent of people trust strangers more than their boss.
But this talent gap doesn't plague companies today because employees lack skills. Rather, employees face a scarcity of training opportunities to develop into effective leaders. According to a 2015 LinkedIn study, 61 percent of companies don’t offer any leadership training, while 87 percent say they don’t do an excellent job developing leaders at all levels.
Given the findings, the “nurture" aspect of leadership remains crucial, especially when the skills are already there. After all, without continued learning, practical experience and collaboration, a great leader could end up spending their career as an unremarkable manager—or not even make it a managerial position at all.
So, while leadership qualities may be something some are born with, stellar leadership ability is the result of practice, struggle, sacrifice, hard work, and self-assessment. As the world-leading leadership expert Warren Bennis once said, "Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult."
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