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Small business

Were you born to lead?

July 18, 2014
The nature/nurture side of leadership.

The nature/nurture side of leadership.

It’s a debate as old as Plato’s Republic, which articulated the concept of ethical leadership back in 380BC. Are talented leaders born that way, or do they become brilliant as a result of guidance and development? It’s the kind of question that’s been asked a million times by now, but since I can’t recall it ever appearing on a Fairfax masthead, I thought I’d raise it here to get your views.

(First, a disclosure. I run a business that exists solely because it believes in the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. So, for the purposes of today’s article, I’ll remain neutral by sharing three of the strongest arguments from both sides, and then leave it to you to decide.)

Leaders are born:

Last year, five universities, including Harvard and the London School of Economics, published the results of an intriguing study conducted on twins. They identified, for the first time, a leadership gene. (In case you’re wondering, it’s rs4950). Their research discovered people with that gene are more likely to be leaders. But the precise influence of rs4950 is not yet known. What’s clear, however, is that it’s there and significantly related to leadership.

In 2012, another study was conducted on twins, this one by the National University of Singapore and Arizona State University. The researchers found that, yep, genetic similarities are present among many leaders. But, more importantly, the type of leader one becomes – known academically as ‘transformational’ – is far more hereditary. Transformational leaders are charismatic, inspirational, energetic and high performing.

Finally, a study two years ago conducted jointly by several institutions, including the University of Melbourne, focused on ‘emergent’ leadership, which is when an employee has influence over others as though he or she were a formal leader without actually being appointed as one. 

This time, again, twins were studied – more than 12,000 of them – with gender differences the main focus. The researchers found, much like the other two studies, a genetic connection. But, for women, that genetic influence mysteriously seems to be strongest during their child-rearing years. Conversely, for men, the influence is linear throughout their working lives. 

Leaders are made:

Just over a decade ago, researchers at Sonoma State University tracked the progress of 281 senior leaders over a six-month period as they engaged in executive coaching. Their effectiveness was measured via 360 feedback, which is when you receive ratings and comments on your performance by colleagues, bosses and employees. The conclusion of the study was that the coaching increased leadership effectiveness by a whopping 60 per cent.

A couple of years later, a meta-analysis on leadership development was published by scholars at Louisiana State University. A leadership development program is usually a combination of learning techniques, such as group workshops, one-on-one mentoring, workplace assignments, on-the-job experiences, and so on. The researchers analysed the results of 83 separate studies that had been conducted over the previous two decades.

They discovered some leadership development programs are hopeless; others are hugely successful. But when they’re all combined, it becomes clear that leadership development programs “produce substantial results”, especially in regards to improving the knowledge and skills of those who participate in them.

And lastly, a joint study in 2006 by Griffith University and the University of Lancaster looked at the ways in which leaders grow within the one organisation. What they found was that leaders often learn through informal means, which commonly include observing other leaders they perceive as role models. 

Critically, the leaders in the study felt as though their ability to lead was an ongoing learning process shaped by continuous experiences. In other words, leadership was a skill to be developed gradually over time as opposed to an innate characteristic that comes naturally.

So, what do you think? Are leaders born or are they made?

Follow James Adonis on Twitter: @jamesadonis

35 comments so far

  • Why do we have the puerile insistence that it is either nature or nurture when obviously both genetic factors and the acquisition of skills are both factors. Which is more important could also depend on individual circumstances. and may not be a universal.

    Commenter
    David
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    July 18, 2014, 7:13AM
    • Exactly.

      Commenter
      Tony
      Location
      Adelaide
      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 8:08AM
    • Thinking you can reduce leadership to one thing's a pretty clear indicator you don't understand what it is... and aren't one.

      Commenter
      no_subject
      Location
      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 1:06PM
    • +1 So tired of it.

      The darker side of 'its down to genes' mind set is that was and is still used to justfy the perpetration of racism.

      I suspect the reason why our society is still blighted with the fantasy that everything is in the genes is the expectation of easy answers...anything complicated and multifactorial must be wrong.

      Damned scientists...deliberately making everything complicated.

      Where's my activated almonds and anti-oxidants.

      Commenter
      MattG
      Location
      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 1:36PM
    • @Mattg

      The racism angle of "it's in the genes" is quite insidious - even something like Star Wars ep 1 falls in that trap - if there's a blood test for the ability to use the force, then the Jedi are a master race...

      Thank goodness then there isn't a leadership gene...

      but remember leadership can come from the one in jeans! :)

      Commenter
      no_subject
      Location
      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 2:02PM
    • The original article by James Adonis has really missed the point at several levels. The recent study on which he based his article shows that non-genetic factors are more important than genetic differences - a finding that is consistent with most of the other studies in the area which suggest the ratio is more like 70-30 or 80-20. These estimates are potentially flawed because they depend on the assumption that identical and non-identical twins have identically similar environments, which is not at all obvious, to say the least. Further, in trying to interpret claims about the genetic basis of any characteristic, it is essential to know how much of the variation in the characteristic is explained by the genetic variation identified. Just in passing, rs4950 is not a gene, it is a single nucleotide polymorphism, which is just a very small part of a gene in which there is a variation that is associated with differences in the characteristic - in this case some aspect of leadership. It is also important to know if you can only be a leader with the variant identified, or if you can be a leader without the variant. In this case you can clearly be a leader without the variant. In the case of leadership, the case for powerful environmental effects is so strong that the article on which he based his article concluded: "Given that genetic factors do not explain most of the variance in leadership emergence, our main suggestion for practice is that this research may help in the identification of specific environmental factors that can help in the development of leadership skills." Enough said!

      Commenter
      Ian
      Location
      Ainslie
      Date and time
      July 20, 2014, 9:03AM
  • I really struggle with this one. I am a leader in most areas of my life and always have been. Whatever organisation/group I am part of, tends to move me to a position of leadership fairly early on. I don't say that to boast but as a matter of fact. That said, I constantly struggle with whether I actually lead well. I am certainly a hard worker and get things done but I sincerely doubt that I inspire those under me. I am very organised, work well to deadlines and will always make sure I finish what I start. I am intelligent, so usually have no trouble grasping what is required and how to go about achieving it.
    But what is a leader? If it's simply someone who gets things done and makes sure those under them gets things done as well, then I'm a leader. If it's someone who inspires those under them to strive and achieve, then I'm not.
    I'd love to hear what others think.

    Commenter
    NewsHound
    Location
    Work
    Date and time
    July 18, 2014, 7:46AM
    • If what you say is true NewsHound, my take is that you are a great manager but not a true leader.

      Commenter
      moneek99
      Location
      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 8:55AM
    • If I accept the definition learned many years ago in the Army, a leader is one who consistently influences and motivates others so as to gain their willing cooperation, obedience and loyalty.

      Don't downplay your leadership abilities - as one of my Fireline leadership coaches insists, everyone leads by example. The variable is whether the example is positive or negative, sound like yours is very positive.

      Commenter
      Andy Evans
      Location
      Little River
      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 11:39AM
    • Actually Andy you make a great point. I agree Newshound sounds like very capable and fair minded leader - which can often be a motivator in and of itself.

      Commenter
      moneek99
      Location
      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 11:53AM

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