Are great inspirational leaders destined or developed?

The debate is fierce, with many believing leadership to be intrinsic or not. So are leaders born or made?  Recent studies have reached a tentative consensus – inspirational leaders are mostly made.

One study suggests that inborn traits only account for about a third of a person’s leadership ability. Another backs this up, placing the importance of natural ability at around 30%.

The research contends that leadership potential may only emerge when developed and encouraged. In other words, natural leadership ability is useless if it’s not nurtured. Even ‘born leaders’ must be made.

Another study differentiates between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. People with natural leadership traits such as extraversion, intelligence and charisma do tend to emerge as ‘natural leaders’ of their peer group. They are more likely to be made managers.

However, this does not predict their effectiveness as leaders. The ability to handle stress, for example, is much more predictive of leadership ability than intelligence. However,  those who appear intelligent are more likely to be chosen for a leadership role.

One thing researchers do tend to agree upon, however, is that that the correct answer to the Born or Made debate is less important than what we think the correct answer is.

This means that understanding how you and the people around you view leadership is essential.  This serves to both to encourage personal growth in your organisation and to demonstrating your own leadership qualities.

Borns and Mades

In a study of 361 people at the top of their organisation (CEOs, COOs and Presidents), around half believed leaders were made. 20% believed leaders were born. The rest thought it was an equal balance.

Researchers then monitored the Borns and the Mades for differences in how they view leadership, how they offer leadership training opportunities, and how they evaluate leaders within their companies.

Borns estimate the importance of training in creating great leaders at 21%. Only half as important as either inborn traits (41%) or experiences (38%). Mades, on the other hand, place training (34%) and experiences (46%) as the most important factors in leadership. Inborn traits ranking at only 20%.

How do they differ in practice?

You might think that since Borns see training as half as important as Mades do, Borns would be significantly less supportive of leadership training in their organisations than Mades. But you’d be wrong. High numbers of both Borns (82%) and Mades (89%) believed that their organisations highly value employee learning and development opportunities.

However, there was one significant difference in how the groups viewed training opportunities. It was the focus. Borns tended to believe that leadership training opportunities should be offered only to a select few who already demonstrate leadership qualities. This perhaps reflects the idea that inborn traits need to be cultivated in order to bloom.

Borns and Mades also see the role and desirable traits of a great leader differently. While both groups agreed that leaders should be collaborative, team-oriented, charismatic, compassionate and generous, Borns are more authority and leader-focused, while Mades are influencing and other-focused.

This means that Borns are more likely to support individual and hierarchical actions: leading by example, showing authority, maintaining formality and abiding by rules.

Mades are more likely to focus on relationships: they believe in inspiring, empowering, mentoring, and supporting others, and are less supportive of maintaining protocol and formality.

How does this affect you and your workplace?

The differences between Borns and Mades mean that understanding how the top-level executives in your company think about leadership is essential to working alongside them. It supports encouraging leadership development. And it effectively demonstrates your own leadership qualities.

Encouraging Leadership Development

Executive coaching, learning and development courses, and mentoring programmes can all be valuable tools for businesses. Mades will be naturally amenable to including the majority in these courses. However, Borns might be reluctant to involve more than a chosen few.

Encourage training and development in a Born-led workplace by suggesting a combination of early-identification programmes (which will appeal to Borns) and company-wide personal development programmes (the Made approach).

To appeal to both Born and Made sensibilities, suggest ways to give employees on-the-job leadership experience: both groups ranked experience as accounting for around 40% of leadership ability.

Demonstrating Leadership Qualities

If your top managers are Borns, they are likely to value a top-down, dominant leadership approach.  Asking many questions, playing down your authority, or seeking consensus over strong direction may be seen as ineffective management.

If your executives are Mades, they’ll likely be more impressed by an influencing, collaborative approach. Pay less attention to formalities and protocol and focus more on inspiring and mentoring your team.

No matter which side of the spectrum the people around you fall on, being inclusive, encouraging team unity, striving for excellence, and being sympathetic will demonstrate your own leadership qualities – be they born or made.


Matthew Marley is a content specialist at ICS Learn one of the UK’s leading distance learning providers. Where he regularly writes about various topics, including business, productivity and innovation.