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Are leaders born or made?

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

by Sherese Cunningham

My colleagues and I recently debated the question “Are leaders born or are leaders made?” I was strong in my conviction and debated confidently that leaders are born, as everyone does not have the characteristics or ability to become a leader. My stance was that no matter how much you train an individual, if he or she does not have that innate ability to lead, that person would never become an effective leader. Conversely, I believed that individuals who possess this innate ability require no training, yet always emerge as leaders. We often observe kids in play and interacting with each other, and we immediately draw conclusions about which of them are going to be leaders versus followers. This conclusion we make supports the Trait Theory of Leadership, which takes the position that leaders are born. This theory identifies common traits such as tenacity, creativity, drive and motivation to succeed, confidence, honesty and integrity, good cognitive skills, capability of using good judgement and decision-making skills. It argues that these traits are nurtured, and this is what makes individuals good or even great leaders. Leadership is seen as the ability to influence others to achieve a common goal. My beliefs were therefore challenged by this theory. I began to reevaluate my perspective, particularly where training and development are used to prepare an individual to take on leadership roles within an organization. Accessing a child to predict his or her potential leadership success is premature because the child has not yet been exposed or experienced enough to define and refine his or her leadership potential. The behavioral theorist believes that leadership is a learned behavior that is developed through experiences and practices. According to an article on, research suggest that leadership is 30 percent genetic and 70 percent a result of lessons learned through life experiences. I do believe that if an organization is placing you on the path to leadership its leaders must have seen some traits in you that would make them believe that you are capable of leading a team successfully. Therefore, my new position is that a leader is a combination of born traits and learned behavior. Further anecdotal research substantiates this position. As a child, Les Brown was labelled as being mentally retarded; today he is recognized as one of the top motivational speakers, impacting and inspiring the lives of many through his speeches. Henry Ford, another great leader, was responsible for revolutionizing the auto industry. As a child, he was quiet and withdrawn. He was despised by his father, who thought he would never amount to anything and wanted him to have a life as a farm laborer. Sir Richard Branson the fourth-richest man in the United Kingdom, suffered from dyslexia, yet he went on to found Virgin Records and the Virgin Group, which controls over 400 companies. These individuals were deficient in many of the traits identified by the Trait Theorist, and were likely labeled as cognitively impaired or delayed, but they dispelled the myth that leaders are exclusively so at birth. They have confirmed that virtually anyone who possesses even a few of the aforementioned traits has the ability to lead or develop leadership skills over time. All of these men made up in their minds that they wanted to be leaders and worked exceptional hard toward that goal. Organizations should provide opportunities for individuals to develop key leadership skills, because strong leaders are at the center of their success. Equally important, individuals who desire to become leaders must take the personal initiative to develop themselves. The following strategies can assist you on your journey to become an effective leader: Identify gaps and strengths. It is important, if you aspire to be a leader, to evaluate yourself from time to time and try to close the gaps on those things that are a hindrance to your development. For example, if you know that you have to improve in the area of communication, join organizations that would help you zero-in on developing those skills. Surround yourself with diverse thinkers. It is critical, as a leader, that you surround yourself with people who can think out of the box and are able to make quick decisions. Create a culture where people are not afraid to share ideas, one where people don’t feel like they would be reprimanded for their difference in opinion. Sir Richard said, “Find good people and set them free.” Understand that words matter. People will pay close attention to what you say and your words will always resonate with them. Learn to respect your colleagues, and never take them for granted. Leaders are humble. Be decisive in your decisions. At the core of leading is the ability to make decisions. You must not be afraid to make decisions, especially the difficult ones. The key is to ensure that the decisions you make are ones that you can stand by. If you are uncertain, seek advice. Accept constructive criticism. Leadership is a process, if you want to continuously be successful in your role be open to learn and criticism. Observe and model behavior that you want others to emulate. Seek feedback and act on it. A good leader is one who is not afraid to ask for and give feedback. Positive feedback keeps your team motivated. Be certain, when giving negative feedback, that it is constructive. This helps to establish a degree of trust between you and your employees. It is not sufficient, however, to just seek feedback; you must be willing and open to act on it. Lead, not manage. The traditional role of a manager was to ensure that people showed up for work and did their jobs. Their focus was primarily on delegating, controlling and meeting the bottom line. To be an effective leader you have to shift your focus and mindset and focus on vision, engagement, big ideas, empowerment, innovation and transformation. Individuals want to work for organizations where managers are leaders first. Periodically perform a personal SWOT analysis. This will give you an opportunity to learn more about yourself and identify key areas for self development. “If you want to be a leader, the good news is that you can do it. Everyone has the potential, but it isn’t accomplished overnight. It requires perseverance.” – John C. Maxwell Leaders are required to be thinkers, communicators, innovators and, most of all, decision makers, all of which are skills that can be developed. Leaders are also required to be charismatic and have the ability to influence a team – traits which are innate. Most of all, the ability to lead has to be a desire that comes from within. Even if you do not have all of the innate traits, weaknesses can be strengthened through training and development. Leaders are therefore neither born nor made; they are both. Find out more about the QC Centre for Further Education on Facebook or at .• Sherese Cunningham is the registrar at Queen’s College Centre for Further Education. She can be reached at

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