Are leaders born or made?

Latest thoughts and research on an age-old question.

Whatever your view on whether leaders are born or made, you can’t deny that the question is a good exercise in ‘oppositional thinking’. The term was first coined by Dr Albert Rothenberg, the creativity researcher. It describes how, at the point of inspiration, creative people can have a moment when two formerly held, opposite views become simultaneously true. You might want to try this for yourself. Take two beliefs you hold to be absolutely in opposition – what pops up when you find a way of seeing them as simultaneously true?

This is especially interesting for the question at hand. A 2011 survey from Executive Development Associates, Inc has found that, for the first time in 20 years ‘creative/critical thinking’ has topped the list of hot topics for leadership development (the choice of 35% of the respondents), while ‘creating vision, enrolling and empowering others’ has fallen to second place with 21% of the vote.

If leadership can be defined as the sum of what we know, what we do and how we are, it is clear that leaders cannot be solely ‘born’. We are not born knowing everything about leadership or about how to enact leadership. That said, in the way we are with other people (our being), we may be seen to be ‘leadership material’ from a young age. Is this because we are born that way? Or does the latest research about the plasticity (learning power) of the brain at very early ages suggest otherwise? For example, M E Thomas cites in her 2013 book Confessions of a Sociopath research that shows babies held less frequently can have life-long issues with being empathetic towards others, potentially leading to being diagnosed as a sociopath.

Professor David Rusch, part of a team researching leadership development at the University of Illinois (2014) suggests leadership development is based on three traits – readiness, willingness and ability – and can be described as: ‘A three-legged stool, students first become ready to learn about being a leader; then they become willing to learn the skills necessary to practice leadership; and finally they're able to lead because they have the skills and the motivation to do it. You can't really move on to the other legs of the stool until you've achieved a certain amount of this readiness.’

This does bring us back to what is the ‘ability’ part of the leadership equation and where is it created – in our DNA or our nurture? DNA studies do seem to suggest that we carry a lot that is already pre-programmed from birth.

Oppositional thinking has provided me with interesting and useful way of thinking about how to enable people to become their best leadership selves, and with a three-legged stool to boot!

The Henley Leadership Programme is designed to help you develop your personal leadership skills. You will learn to inspire and lead others by understanding yourself, how you relate to the people you work with and the leadership challenges you face.


Dr Suzanne Pollack

Director of The Leadership Programme