Are leaders born or made?

In years gone by, leaders were chosen not based on their skills or abilities, but based on their birthright. A position of power would be passed down through the generations, regardless of how capable an individual was. While popular opinon now is that leadership is a learnt ability, could there actually be more to leadership than that which is taught?

A 2013 study from University College London found that there is a significant association between people’s likelihood to take on managerial responsibilities and their DNA. Genetics could have more to do with leadership than previously thought.

The study, published online in the Leadership Quarterly journal, was the first to identify a specific DNA sequence associated with the tendency for individuals to occupy a leadership position. Using a large sample of twins, the team estimated that a quarter of the observed variation in leadership behaviour between individuals can be explained by genes passed down from parents.

“We have identified a genotype called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations,” lead author Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve said.

This, of course, goes against conventional thinking - and the study authors admit that leadership is not entirely inherent and further research is required to understand.

Generally, it is thought that leadership is a skill that can be taught, as Brigette Hyacint, author of The Edge of Leadership, identifies in a recent LinkedIn blog: “To be a leader in a structured environment, one needs some formal training. Most people can learn to manage well, start a business, lead a project team since good management is based on rules - rules that can be learned and mastered.”

However, there’s more to leadership than knowing the rules and following them - in fact many great leaders (Richard Branson included) are well known for throwing the rule book out altogether. Jack Welch says in a blog post, “Positive energy and the ability to energise are pretty hard-wired. They’re basically personality. Similarly, passion feels inborn. Some people just seem to come fully loaded with intensity and curiosity; they naturally love people, life, and work. It’s in them. It is them.”

However, Welch recognises that edge and the ability to execute are different and all leaders can benefit from training in both. But, he says, “the best teacher for these two traits is trench warfare.”

Another study, from the University of Illinois, identified willingness as the most important factor in succeeding as a leader. Based on a group of undergraduate students enrolled on an introductory leadership theory course, researchers found that those who had the highest levels of self-efficacy gained the most from the course, in terms of leadership skills and made significant gains in non-calculative motivation to lead. They noted this as important as “it suggests that students who enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester already feeling confident as leaders leave the course more motivated to practice leadership even when they feel there is no obvious self-focused payoff”.

So are leaders born or made? Some, including Connson Chou Locke, assistant professor of management at the London School of Economics and Political Science, question what is actually being asked by that. “If it is asking whether someone will emerge as a leader among a group of peers, then those types of leaders are born,” she says. “But if it is asking whether someone will perform effectively in a leadership position, then that is dependent on the context, the type of job, and the person’s ability to develop leadership skills. This cannot be predicted by their traits.”


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