Are Leaders Born?


The Born LeaderLeaders aren't born. Neither are great artists, but both are born with potential. Our answer to this question depends on how we define leadership. If being a leader means challenging the status quo, then you need youthful rebelliousness to stand up and be counted. This is a character trait you were born with or developed very early in life - it is not a learned skillset.

Conventional theories of leadership focus on being in charge of a group and getting the best out of direct reports, but that is not how Martin Luther King showed leadership. He challenged the status quo from the sidelines, as an outsider.

No one in government reported to him. He also had a massive leadership impact on the general population. He was not in charge of the general population either. So, his leadership was a discrete impact on people who did not report to him.

To lead in the way that Martin Luther King did, you need the following traits or qualities:

  • a spirit of adventure - the urge to explore, break new ground, challenge the status quo, stand up for what you believe, risk rejection, rebel against authority, innovate.
  • an ability to influence - by example, logical argument, enthusiasm, persistence or bypainting a visionary picture.
  • something you think is worth saying, to improve the world around you.
  • the courage to speak out and the willingness to risk group rejection.
  • it doesn't require a drive to dominate people, only a desire to differentiate yourself, to make your mark.

It's hard to shift your inclination to rebel or challenge the status quo very much if you are strongly cautious, conservative or motivated to be accepted by others rather than risk rejection.

You can modify your style of influencing a bit, but not totally. A quietly persuasive leader will have difficulty ever being charismatic - some in-born traits here.

We are either born with a strong rebellious streak or acquire it early in life. The same is true of intelligence.

However, influencing skills and style vary widely, which is why so many types of people can lead. How you lead varies along two dimensions: influencing style and context. These two variables account for the infinite variety we see across leaders.

But leadership is always shown either by example or by promoting a better way. That is constant across influencing styles and contexts, which is why we can say, in general, that it requires the courage to challenge the status quo, a trait that people acquire early in life. It is not a learned skill, like how best to influence a particular audience.

Earlier theories of leadership rejected the idea that leaders are born because they identified leadership with the personality and skills to achieve a dominant position in a group.

Leadership Traits

To lead in the sense of challenging the status quo means simply showing the way for others either by example or by explicitly promoting a better way.

The critical leadership trait in this sense of leadership is the courage to stand up and be counted, rebelliousness - it's a bit like creativity, you might have it in a small amount, rather than large doses, but you either have it or you don't.

Leaders are rebels who focus their rebelliousness on challenging the status quo and improving the world around them.

Strictly speaking, no one is born a leader, just as no one is born a talented artist. But you can be born with the underlying traits that make you a potential artist given the right stimulus and environment.

Similarly, exploratory, rebellious characters could become criminals rather than leaders depending on circumstances, so it is the potential you are born with, not full scale leadership. Mozart was not born a musician after all - just with the creative potential to become one.

This view has huge implications for leadership development - it means we can develop managers or executives or influencing skills, but not the fundamental drive to be a leader. 

We live in a more biological age. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century we believed that everyone could become anything with the right environment and support. This view is not so widely held in the 21st century. 

Even the conventional definition of leadership which focuses on the drive to dominate people, to be the top dog, is a trait that some people acquire early in life and have more than others. Here, however, this definition of leadership is rejected. The real meaning of leadership has nothing to do with occupying a position of power.

Should we focus on selecting leaders then rather than developing them? No, this misses the point - it's not about appointing people to positions. The key is to create the conditions for leadership to emerge informally and spontaneously throughout the organization.

Keep in mind that leadership, as portrayed here, is about innovating or championing new directions. It is not about managing people - otherwise how could innovative knowledge workers show leadership upwards - to people they do not manage? Of course, management skills can be learned. Still, some people are more naturally suited to management than others.

 EVERYONE can show some leadership - you don't have to be an out and out rebel. Anyone with suggestions to make to improve things can show leadership at least on a small, local scale. We all have good ideas for doing things better. It's just a matter of speaking up and persisting until you win support for your views. You don't have to be a manager to be a leader.

The Bottom Line

We are fascinated with the question of whether leaders are born because we focus on the glamorous end of the spectrum: being a CEO or major politician and also leadership-as-role rather than leadership-as-discrete-act. So, we think these people must be born with a special advantage over the rest of us mere mortals.

However, when leadership is redefined as simply showing others a better way, even in very small-scale things like minor changes to a work process, then the whole question vanishes. We may still ask what it takes to be a great leader, however. But everyone can lead at some level.

What do you think?

Do you think there is any truth to the idea that leaders are born? Is it all about development or do you think some people are born with more leadership potential than others? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thank you!

Where do you want to go from here?

For more on some of these themes, see Leadership TraitsLeadership Defined and Thought Leadership

For more unconventional thinking on leadership see our sister site LEAD2XL