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Are Leaders Born or Bred?

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 3rd May 2017. Revised 16th November 2020.

2 min read

Are leaders born or bred? It’s a persistent question. Some senior managers and policy makers believe absolutely that leaders are bred, that a leader must come from the right background, that leaders must have the right genes. Others argue strongly that anyone can be made into a leader given the right training. So who’s right?

The answer is a bit of both. In fact there are two elements to a good leader.

Leaders certainly must have the right individual characteristics. Desirable characteristics might include proactivity and high intelligence. Proactivity and fluid intelligence are innate traits but crystallised intelligence is experiential and gained as part of our education and learning.

It might also be difficult for someone who is highly introvert to excel when the role calls for charismatic and transformational leadership approaches. It’s difficult to learn how to go against one's intrinsic feelings.

Each leadership approach, like transformational leader, transactional leader and the like, calls for different leader behaviour. And the ability to exhibit that behaviour is conditioned by personal characteristics.

A person’s individual characteristics are part hereditary and part experiential. Research suggests that 30% of leadership competence is hereditary. So those who say that leaders are bred are in part right.

But for the rest of the potential leader’s characteristics we have to look back to their upbringing and early experiences. This is why many believe that it’s important to captain the rugby or hockey squad at school or to take up myriad opportunities for early responsibility for the actions of others. These early experiences build the personal profile and hence build foundations for later learning.

So if a person has the right personality and other innate personal characteristics and if they have continued to build their characteristics through their formative years, they are potentially in a position to be taught leadership.

Leader development involves teaching leader-follower exchange, goal setting theory, how to provide direction and support and behaviour reinforcing. It also involves communicating vision and inspirational messages and building moral values and giving intellectual stimulation in followers.

So leaders must have the right personal characteristics (part hereditary and part from early life experience) to succeed. And they must learn the skills of leadership in line with the leadership approaches that they might choose.

You can read more about what makes a good leader in our book - Because Your People Matter.