Are leaders born or made?
Last month, the University of SA held a debate with 6 panelists (3 to argue for the “born” viewpoint and 3 to argue for the “made” viewpoint), which included TV presenter David Koch and Senator Penny Wong. (See video here. Runtime: 54 min.)
The debate, more lighthearted than serious, in the end was settled as a draw. The panelists were given 5 minutes each to present their argument, which did not allow time to properly address some of the scientific studies that were raised along the way.
For example, one of the panelists arguing for the affirmative (“leaders are born”) drew on a study that found a particular genotype (rs4950) was associated with leadership; the first ever study to find such a link. Her conviction that science supported the born case is perhaps understandable given The DailyMail.co.uk had seized on the study results back in 2013 by proclaiming: “Leaders really are born and not made, scientists say after finding a gene that influences whether someone is likely to rule or be ruled.”
The claim was in fact entirely misleading. When we tracked down the actual study results, we discovered that this genetic marker accounted for just 24% of leadership variance and the authors clearly stated in their published report that “genetic factors do not explain most of the variance in leadership emergence.” They also make it clear that “what determines whether an individual occupies a leadership position is the complex product of genetic and environmental influences.” Nowhere in the report did the researchers state that “leaders really are born and not made” as the Daily Mail reported. Ironically, the so-called evidence used to support the “born” view should have been used to support the “made” view, though nobody on the panel seemed aware of it.
And that’s the part that really interests us: the core research. After decades of debate and a sizeable mass of evidence to sift through, we wanted to know if it was possible to conclude, with any degree of confidence, whether one of these viewpoints was clearly substantiated over the other. We wanted to ask, in a serious way, as a jury would be asked in a proceedings of a criminal trial, is there clear and convincing evidence beyond the point of reasonable doubt?
We tracked down everything that we could find on the subject: beginning with articles and expert opinions by popular business authors, and then moving to meta-analyses, academic papers, surveys, studies, and the latest advances in genetic research.
At the end of our investigation, we found there is enough evidence to substantiate the following statement: leaders are more made than born.
What is This Question Really Asking? To begin with, the question “Are Leaders Born or Made?” is problematic in that it is phrased as an “either/or” question. Taken literally, the question is presenting people with two, and only two, options: either you believe that leadership is 100% born (genetic) and 0% made (learned) or that leadership is 100% made and 0% born.
And this is the way in which many people have a tendency to frame their answers, e.g., “leaders are absolutely made and not born.”
It’s unlikely that you will find a respected expert anywhere who believes that either genetics or life experience makes absolutely no contribution whatsoever to one’s character. It’s not an all-or-nothing question. In reality, it’s about which one is more important. The question is really asking: “Are Leaders More Born or More Made?”
This leaves us with 3 possible answers to choose from:
More Made More Born About Equal (Both)
A widely cited survey done by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in 2012 asked 361 C-level executives to select one of these 3 options and reported the results as follows: More Born 19.1%, More Made 52.4%, About Equal 28.5%. (Are Leaders Born or Made? Perspectives from the Executive Suite, CCL, 2012)
It is also important to note that the question “Are Leaders Born or Made” is technically only concerned with what it takes to become a leader, not successful leadership. Many people draw on the biographies of great leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Gandhi to support their particular side of the argument, however, the question simply addresses the tendency that some people have to be seen as "leader-like" (leadership emergence), not about good or great leadership (leadership effectiveness).
What is Meant by “Leader”? Going by a widely accepted definition put forth by Peter Drucker, a leader is anybody who has followers. This covers a broad sweep of people in society, from those who have risen to a formal position, such as a corporate manager, CEO, military general, or cricket captain, to those who have acquired followers in an informal capacity, such as an influential speaker, author, or celebrity whose every move is followed with great interest. As a collective group, the thing that all these people have in common is a level of social status that has been obtained in which others look to them for some form of direction or guidance.
What is Meant by “Born”? The idea that "leaders are born” is a trait-based attitude towards leadership. From this perspective, the qualities that distinguish leaders from non-leaders are naturally inherited traits — these typically include things like general intelligence (IQ), extraversion and charisma — which are either very difficult or impossible to learn if you don’t already have them. What is Meant by “Made”? The idea that “leaders are made” counters the trait viewpoint by asserting that even though some people naturally rise to leadership positions faster than others, the path to leadership is ultimately learned.
What Do The Experts Say?
"The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born." — Warren Bennis
"Great leaders are made, not born." — Marshall Goldsmith
"Effective leaders are made, not born." — Colin Powell
"I know some people who are just born leaders. But I also feel that leaders can be made. People can learn. So I tell people that leaders are born AND made." — Ken Blanchard
"The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is both." — Jack Welch
"I certainly believe leaders can be made. I think some people who are extraordinary are born leaders and they probably showed it from an early age at one end of the continuum. And I think at the other end, there may be people who could never be a leader no matter what they did. But I think everybody has in them the potential to lead. And the question is whether the circumstances evoke that." — Rosabeth Moss Kanter
“Leaders grow, they are not made.” — Peter Drucker
“Are we basically a product of nature or nurture? Neither. We are a product of choice. Are leaders born or made? Neither. They are self-made. Again it is a choice.” — Stephen Covey
We were unable to locate a quote from any popular business author or leadership expert who advocates for the “leaders are more born” viewpoint.
What Does The Science Say?
The first and only study to identify a specific genotype associated with the tendency to occupy a leadership position was published in the Leadership Quarterly in 2012.
“Employing twin design methods on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we estimate the heritability of leadership role occupancy at 24%... The results show that leadership role occupancy is associated with rs4950, a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) residing on a neuronal acetylcholine receptor gene (CHRNB3).”
This study means that over 75% of leadership emergence is still accounted for.
“Given that genetic factors do not explain most of the variance in leadership emergence, our main suggestion for practice is that this research may help in the identification of specific environmental factors that can help in the development of leadership skills.”
— “Born to lead? A twin design and genetic association study of leadership role occupancy,” Leadership Quarterly, 2012, De Neve et al.
Several other studies that looked at the link between genetics and leadership emergence all found similar results:
“Results indicated that 30% of the variance in leadership role occupancy could be accounted for by genetic factor, while non-shared (or non-common) environmental factor accounted for the remaining variance in leadership role occupancy.”
— “The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic and personality factors,” The Leadership Quarterly, 2005, Arvey et al.
“The genetic and developmental influences on leadership role occupancy were investigated using a sample of 178 fraternal and 214 identical female twins. Two general developmental factors were identified, one involving formal work experiences and the other a family experiences factor hypothesized to influence whether women move into positions of leadership in organizations. Results indicated that 32% of the variance in leadership role occupancy was associated with heritability.”
— "Developmental and genetic determinants of leadership role occupancy among women," Journal of Applied Psychology, 2007, Arvey, Zhang, Avolio, Krueger
“Results indicated that approximately 17% of the variance in the latent construct of leadership emergence is explained by genetic effects that are mediated by intelligence and the Big Five personality traits.”
— “Individual differences in leadership emergence: Integrating meta-analytic findings and behavioral genetics estimates,” International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 2004, Ilies, Gerhardt, Le
In 2011, Harvard Business Review reported on the findings of a study by Imperial College London:
"Based on surveys of hundreds of twins, an Imperial College London study found that genes account for just 49% of a person's qualities of transformational, or inspirational, leadership."
— "There's More to Leadership Than Genes,” Harvard Business Review, 2011 (Genetic Underpinnings of Transformational Leadership, Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 2011)
The only study that we could locate to link the five-factor model of personality with leadership effectiveness is as follows:
“Overall, the correlations with leadership were Neuroticism (—.24), Extraversion (.31), Openness (.24), Agreeableness (.08), and Conscientiousness (.28)… Extraversion was the most consistent correlate of leadership across study settings and leadership criteria (leader emergence and leadership effectiveness).”
— “Personality and Leadership: A Qualitative and Quantitative Review,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 2002, Judge et al.
The only current study that we could locate to link intelligence and leadership effectiveness is as follows:
“Results indicated that the corrected correlation between intelligence and leadership is .21 (uncorrected for range restriction) and .27 (corrected for range restriction). Perceptual measures of intelligence showed stronger correlations with leadership than did paper-and-pencil measures of intelligence.”
— "Intelligence and Leadership: A Quantitative Review and Test of Theoretical Propositions," Journal of Applied Psychology, 2004, Judge and Colbert
Conclusion Genetics, general mental ability and certain personality traits are all consistently correlated with leadership. However, there is no evidence to support the idea that this link is the dominant or the most important factor driving leadership emergence or leadership effectiveness. We could not locate a single study to conclude that genetics are more important than learned experience in relation to leadership. Research typically indicates that leadership is roughly 20-30% “born” and 70-80% “made.” The preponderance of evidence tells us the case is strongest for “more made.” This finding is in line with current expert opinion and the general consensus within the business community.