The question of whether great leaders are naturally born or created through a combination of environment, circumstance and effort has long been debated. There are strong, compelling arguments to back up either side, but for many, the question is purely intellectual.
For those of us in recruitment, training, and development, the answer to this question matters a great deal and has far-reaching implications. It can help determine who among a set of candidates has the capacity to lead and benefit our organizations long-term. Investing in the wrong individuals can cost companies time and money, not to mention damage to their reputation. Conversely, employees with leadership qualities tend to remain with companies longer, perform better, and have higher overall morale.
It should be noted that in the years to come, finding potential leaders is going to become even more of a pressing issue than it is today. Various sources have attested that there will be a leadership scarcity, and point to factors such as demographics, globalization and underdeveloped pipelines for future company leaders as the cause. In 2015, a Business Human Capital Challenges report stated a lack of leadership was one of the top business concerns, and a Global Workforce Leadership survey claimed leadership is the hardest skill to find in employees.
For reasons such as these, hiring managers need to get familiar with selecting potential leaders, giving them the assistance they need to thrive, and providing training as necessary.
Why does it matter if a leader is born or made?
The reason behind why this question has been asked and investigated so many times is because the answer has a substantial impact on how we, as entrepreneurs, select and recruit. If a leader is born, hiring managers don’t need to overly concern themselves with each candidate’s potential; they simply need to be on the lookout for leadership qualities. However, if a leader is made, executive coaching and leadership development programs can be employed to encourage leadership skills.
Arguments in favor of natural-born leaders
Science has looked into the question of whether leaders are naturally born, and we have some compelling evidence to suggest they are. Brain scans indicate leaders might be ‘wired differently’ and have more space dedicated to decision making and memory. This is suggestive of a ‘leadership gene’: a concept that certainly doesn’t have any valid scientific evidence to support it as of yet. Those who argue in support of genetic proponents to a leadership state that as an individual’s psychological and physiological functions impact both cognitive and behavioral traits, it is natural to assume that biology can determine whether an individual is suited for leadership.
Other theories that support the concept that leaders are made are the “Great Man theory” and “Trait Theory”, both of which state people are born with certain characteristics that make them inherently suited to leadership.
Arguments in favor of nurtured leaders
Those who argue that leaders are made include experts in social learning theory and social psychology. These professionals argue that regardless of what qualities you may or may not be born with, they won’t be developed unless you exercise them. For example, they may consider that nobody is born with a strong sense of inner confidence; for this is a trait people develop as they age, and it will be dependent on family life, education, support, and circumstance. Like anything else in life, leadership is something you learn and strengthen through a careful mixture of discipline, passion, and persistence.
Factoring in both nature and nurture
Clearly, there is no neat and simple answer to the question of whether or not an individual is born a leader or is trained to be one. Rather than being black and white, the reality is probably a shade of gray. Certain people might be born with promising leadership qualities, but it is only through dedication, environment and hard work that a leader can really reach their true potential.
Using recruitment assessment to test for leadership qualities
If hiring managers want to address the reality that certain individuals are born with innate characteristics conducive to leadership, recruitment assessment can help pinpoint candidates with true potential. For example, in his book Leadership: Theory and Practice, Peter G. Northouse states the five major leadership traits are “intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability.” Similarly, Forbes identified strong communication, honesty, and the ability to delegate responsibility as great leadership qualities. Using psychometric testing, employees can be screened for the qualities above and employers can get an accurate reflection of a candidate’s personality profile. They will have scientific data to deduce whether or not the candidate has leadership potential.
How leadership development programs can help
To address the ‘nurture’ part of leadership development, companies can introduce a leadership development program to educate promising employees on leadership requirements, skills, and styles. Such a program can also help employees learn to deal with ever-changing demands and managerial stress. Leadership development programs are also used to demonstrate the daily challenges senior managers regularly face. Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of leadership development schemes, showing those with a program are 86% more able to deal with rapidly changing market conditions. Data such as this demonstrates effective leadership is certainly something that can be honed and learnt over time, with the right dedication and effort.
About the Author:
Nick Davis is a Business Psychologist and Director at Davis Associates: an HR consultancy in London, England. By applying best practice practice recruitment assessment, leadership development and executive coaching, Nick has helped clients across the globe achieve greater individual, team and organizational performance. He is passionate about the beneficial qualities psychology can have within the workplace.
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