Are Leaders Born or Made?

Are Leaders Born or Made? This is an intriguing question that stimulates continuous debates. While some scientists agree that people are born as leaders, researchers against this idea indicate that there is no genetic factor to leadership thus the “the most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born” (Bennis as cited in Wattleton, 2009, p. 96). Because leadership is “one of the most observed, yet least understood, phenomena on earth” (Burns as cited in Rosch & Kusel, 2010, p. 29), the answer to this question depends on in-depth studies in leadership concepts, traits, and developments. This article reviews leadership definitions in terms of leader-follower influence and analyzes how to identify leaders. Leadership skill development is also studied in this article in order to understand a person’s traits, capabilities, and potentials to become a leader.

Defining Leadership

According to Rosch and Kusel (2010), leadership is commonly defined as “an individual’s influence on a group in order to reach a goal” (p. 29). Similarly, Lussier and Achua (2010) stated that “leadership is the influencing process of leaders and followers to achieve organizational objectives through change” (2010, p. 6). These definitions are well accepted because they are difficult to disagree with, but the meaning of leadership is rather vague in these definitions when there is no clear description on what actions to be taken to make such influence. In fact, influence can be made in many ways, thus it is arguable that whether or not true leadership is conducted when a personal or organizational goal is achieved by coercion, force, or unethical means.

To make a more concise definition with boundaries, Boseman (2008) referred leadership as the “act of stimulating, engaging, and satisfying the motives of followers that result in the followers taking a course of action toward a mutually shared vision” (p. 36). As summarized in Volckmann (2012), leadership is conducted by people with certain positive traits to influence followers to perform tasks as directed by the leaders in order to “achieve group or organizational goals that reflect excellence defined as some kind of higher order effectiveness” (p. 10). Thus, leadership means a positive motivational influence from leaders to followers for their mutual purposes of changes and improvements reflecting the organizational goals.

Because all definitions of leadership indicate leaders’ influence with followers, leadership should be perceived as a social behavior for actions towards mutual goals of both leaders and followers. Therefore, to answer the question that leaders are born or made, it is necessary to examine whether or not this social behavior is genetically inherited or it can be learned and trained. According to Avolio and Hannah (2008), recent behavioral-genetic research provided “compelling evidence that one’s ability for leadership is more developed or made than heritable or born” (p. 333). Because behavioral-genetic research could not identify genetic differences among individuals to affect the variance in complex behavioral traits, it is concluded that “most behavioral variability among individuals is environmental in origin” (Plomin and Daniels as cited in Avolio and Hannah, 2008, p. 333). This conclusion means that there is no genetic makeup to guarantee anyone to be a leader.

Identifying Leaders

There may be ambiguity in identifications of leaders without definite specifications of leaders’ qualities. In general, “charismatic and extroverted individuals at the top of an organizational hierarchy are classified as leaders” (Rosch & Kusel, 2010, p. 29). As Rosch and Kusel (2010) further explained, leadership can be demonstrated “through a variety of skills including, but not limited to, understanding one’s values, strengths, and weaknesses; possessing broad interpersonal competence and communication skills; and/or having the capacity for effectiveness in organizational, project, and task management” (p. 30).

On the basis of studies by Nazari and Emami(2012), there are nine key qualities people seek in a successful leader: Passion, Decisiveness, Conviction, Integrity, Adaptability, Emotional Toughness, Emotional Resonance, Self-Knowledge, and Humility. Among those key qualities, passion and integrity are the most important identities for a leader because according to Henrikson (2006) “leadership is an affair of the heart” (p. 514) and “the best kept secret of successful leaders is love” (p. 514). A person must being in love with leading before he or she can be a leader. True leaders are passionate to the work, the team, the organization and the common goals among the leaders and followers. Followers admire leaders who are positive and enthusiastic; followers trust leaders with integrity. In today’s innovative and dynamic business environment, leaders must create a favorite culture to motivate and inspire followers. Leaders must demonstrate enthusiasm and energy, and be able to energize followers as well (Carpenter, Fusfeld, & Gritzo, 2010). Therefore, leaders can be easily identified when they are “electric, vigorous, active, full of life and sincere” (Henrikson, 2006, p. 514).

Obviously, these identifications of leaders are dispositions and skills that one can adapt and learn. If a person is not born as a leader, this person can make himself or herself a leader by learning and practicing leadership. For example, when people consistently build emotional intelligence, enhance self-knowledge, and improve communication skills, they have better chance to obtain leadership positions and can become successful leaders.

Developing Leadership Skills

Leadership development is the highest priority for many organizations because “the success of all economic, political, and organizational systems depends on the effective and efficient guidance of the leaders of these systems” (Parris & Peachey, 2013, p. 377). Parris and Peachey (2013) stated that leadership is a skill; leaders use this skill to “influence followers in an organization to work enthusiastically towards goals specifically identified for the common good” (p. 377). As any other skills, leadership must be learned and practiced. Thus Cardillo (2012) concluded that “good leaders are developed through education and training, mentoring, and supported experience” (p. 12).

Although people can learn leadership skills from experience on the leaders’ positions, experience alone is not enough. In organizations, the make of new leaders often starts from leadership development programs. Based on studies of leadership theories and applications in various industries, Cardillo (2010) specified crucial leadership dimensions which include “delegation, decision making, problem-solving, inspiring, planning, persuading, teaching, initiating, self-managing” (p. 12). These dimensions can be used as core components for a comprehensive leadership development program. Through leadership skills development, leaders are expected to learn each aspect of the components; more importantly, once learned, new leaders must be given the opportunity to “put knowledge into practice in a supportive environment that includes feedback and advice” (Cardillo, 2010, p. 12).

The development of leadership skills is often specified and customized based on the difference of leadership roles and organizational operations. For example, the leadership role for a community college department chair requires the leader to manage workers in various academic categories, thus creating an in-house program to develop community college chairs offers an advantageous solution. Through the program, new leaders can learn how to manage and lead a contingency workforce of adjunct faculty whose needs and motivations may differ from that of full-time faculty (Sirkis, 2011, p. 48-49). In another example, the skill development of Research and Development (R&D) leaders may emphasizes on the leadership of innovation and creativity. As discussed in Carpenter, Fusfeld, and Gritzo (2010), R&D leaders must “value the unique characteristics and styles of colleagues, leveraging differences to create energy and spark innovation (p. 59).


Researchers have defined leadership as the leaders’ positive influence on the followers to work towards their mutual goals. Leadership reflects the social behavior and the skill in handling reciprocal relationship between leaders and followers. Certain personal traits can be identified as favorable dispositions and strengths which may be helpful for a leadership role. On the other hand, there is no scientific evidence for genetic makeup of the leadership trait, thus leaders are not solely born. Most researchers support the idea that leaders are made rather than born. To help making new leaders, the leadership development programs have been created to train potential leaders for core skills and provide mentor and support during the leadership practice. In summary, although some people are born with leadership advantages, leaders are mainly made from continuous learning and accumulative experience. By developing right leadership skills, everyone can become a better leader.


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