Are Great Leaders Born or Made? (ESSAY)

A leader is someone who is able to influence others to achieve a desired goal or outcome. How a leader does this is referred to as their leadership style, of which there are many different variations.

For example, Lewin (1939, p.271) defined leaders as being authoritarian (e.g. Adolf Hitler), democratic (e.g. John F. Kennedy) or laissez-faire (e.g. Ronald Reagan).

House (1976, p.4) promoted the idea that some leaders exhibit a charismatic style (e.g. Steve Jobs) whilst Bass (1990, p.19) expanded upon this by suggesting that some leaders exhibit a more transformational style (e.g. Richard Branson).

However, whilst these styles of leadership may be useful in helping us to understand how leaders lead, they do not address the question of what makes a leader great. Or more specifically, whether such leaders are born or whether they are made?

What Makes A Leader?

During the early twentieth century the idea that leaders were born rather than made was widely accepted. Many scholars during this time for example agreed with the views of Jerome Dowd who saw the masses as being led by “the superior few” (Organ 1996, p.1), and also those of Thomas Carlyle, a proponent of the Great Man Theory who argued that “some people are born with more leadership ability than others” (Browning and Sparks 2002).

A casual glance at past historic leaders such as William Wallace, King Arthur and Alexander the Great, certainly seems to support the idea that these “great men” possessed unique qualities which the “average man” did not. But what made these people the leaders they eventually became?

In an attempt to answer this question, trait theories of leadership began to emerge with the aim of identifying the characteristics that leaders possessed. The basic premise was that leaders became leaders because they possessed physical, social or mental traits which others did not.

For example, William Wallace is thought to have been significantly taller than the average man of his day. Therefore, according to trait theories, Wallace’s height advantage may have made him the leader he became because it gave him more strength and a more powerful presence than the average man.

However, if we look at other tall individuals such as the “gentle, quiet man” Sultan Kosen, currently the world’s tallest man (Cockcroft 2009), we find that even though height provides certain advantages, it may help, but by no means will make someone a leader.

Predicting Leadership

The lack of correlation between traits and leadership was demonstrated by Stogdill (1948, p.35) who found that there were no universal traits that could be used to predict leadership.

Many researchers subsequently took these findings as a sign to abandon trait theories, even though Stogdill had recommended studying the interaction of traits with their environment (Cooper 2000, p.131).

This is unfortunate, because as shown by the comparison between Wallace and Kosen, there can be a lack of correlation between the trait of height and leadership.

However, the fact that Wallace became a leader whereas Kosen has not, does suggest that environmental factors may play a role in developing the genetic traits we are born with.

Research on the importance of traits and leadership carried out by Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991, p.48) certainly seems to support this view, especially with their conclusion that “the possession of certain traits alone does not guarantee leadership” but that “traits help the leader acquire necessary skills”.

So whilst some researchers may have disregarded trait theories as an irrelevant relic from the past, a reexamination of these theories shows that they may still hold some relevance in today’s modern age.

For example, a recent review of leadership literature identified several key traits such as extraversion and conscientiousness which were “consistently” associated with leadership (Judge and Bono 2000, p.751).

Based on these findings, it may be possible to use such traits as predictors of leadership (Robbins and Judge 2009, p.422), either of young children or of adults.

If young children’s personalities are tested, and the progress of those who are indentified as having these leadership traits are monitored, then we may be able to determine how much of an influence genetics play in developing leaders and the relative importance of the environmental factors that interact with these traits.

Fortunately, Arveya (2006, p.1) has already carried out a similar study on the leadership achievements of male twins, from which he concluded that genetics accounted for 30% of leadership abilities.

This means, according to Arveya’s research, that environmental factors play a greater role in leadership development than genetics.

Although some may find these results surprising, they become less so when you begin to examine the research that has been carried out on the relationship between intelligence quotient (IQ) scores and the environment in which one has been raised.

Skeels (1966, p.1) for example, found that when children who were removed from an unstimulating orphanage were later tested for intelligence, they scored, on average, 30 IQ points higher than those who remained in the orphanage.

This is an interesting observation, because some researchers, such as Elliott Jaques, believe that a person’s leadership ability is directly tied to their level of intelligence (Browning and Sparks 2002).

Therefore, if intelligence can be enhanced as a result of environmental influences, then perhaps the same can occur with leadership?

Situational Creation of Leaders

Whilst trait theories may be useful in helping us to understand the characteristics of leaders, they do not tell us the relative importance of each trait or how those traits interact with the environment.

This is a significant omission, because it means that even though a person may be identified as having leadership traits, we can not say for certain if those traits will turn them into a leader or what type of leader they will become.

For example, prior to World War 2 Winston Churchill was generally regarded as being unpopular and as a failure (Cohen 2008, p.204).

During the war however, his courage and vision caused his popularity soar, but this was short lived as he quickly became unpopular again after the war had ended.

What we learn from Churchill is that even though someone may possess the ability to become a leader, the situation they are in can play a significant role in determining how effective they will be.

Fred Fiedler’s contingency model seems to support this conclusion, as it proposes that the effectiveness of a leader is largely dependent upon having the right leader for the right situation (Hossain 2006, p.33).

However, if we take into consideration how quickly subjects adapted to the role of prisoner or guard during the Stanford Prison Experiments (Blass 2000, p.201), it could also be argued that the situation itself may be responsible for creating the leader by awakening previously dormant leadership traits.

Following this logic, one may wonder whether Martin Luther King would have become the leader he became without the racial tension that existed in the United States at the time? Or if William Wallace would have become the leader he became without the oppression of the Scottish people by the English?

Of course it is impossible to say for certain, but the example given by Churchill does seem to provide some evidence that particular situations can cause a leader to emerge, and without that situation, that leader may never emerge.

This situational creation of leaders could be further extended by including the attribution theory of leadership, which proposes that leaders become leaders because others have labeled them so (Meindl 1995, p.329).

One such individual which may be used as supportive evidence of this claim is Mahatma Gandhi, who, despite having no formal power, became recognised as a leader as a result of his non violent opposition to British rule in India.

If we accept the attribution of leadership, then we can also accept the situational leadership theory, which, in essence, states that the effectiveness of a leader is dependent on whether their followers accept or reject them as a leader (Graeff 1983, p.285).

The underlying implication being that if a leader is right for the situation they will be accepted, but if they are wrong for the situation, they will be rejected.

This in turn provides further evidence to support the claim that situational factors are an important determinant in leader emergence, but that ultimately, it is the followers who determine who becomes a leader and who does not.

Life Experiences and Leader Development

If we agree with the proposition that followers create leaders through their willingness or unwillingness to follow them, then by examining the personality types which engage these followers, we can gain a better understanding of not only how successful leaders lead, but also, whether it is possible for others to emulate their success.

Research carried out by Judge (2002, p.765) for example, found “strong support” of a link between personality types organised around the Big Five personality framework (i.e. emotional stability, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness) and leadership, suggesting that leaders do indeed have common personality traits.

Furthermore, findings from twin studies have concluded that these personalities are “substantially” heritable (Loehlin 1998, p.431), indicating that personalities associated with leadership may also have a genetic basis.

However, it is important to note that these same studies also stress the importance of situational factors in shaping a person’s personality, which give credence to Robert Thomas’ view that the ability to learn from “crucible” life experiences plays a significant role in leader development.

For example, Bob Galvin, former Motorola CEO, credits parts of his development as a leader to an experience he had when working in a factory at age seventeen.

Galvin, who accidentally shut down an assembly line, received help from the plant supervisor to correct the problem who he later overheard complimenting him.

Galvin now credits that experience as giving him “the confidence to make mistakes and learn from them” (Thomas 2008, p.201).

What we learn from such examples is that the factors which affect personality development, also, to some degree, seem to affect leader development.

For example, a child’s early life experiences and the way in which they were treated by their parents can play a significant role in developing that child’s personality (Brungardt 1997, p.81).

Therefore, a child who grew up already possessing some or all of the Big Five personality traits, such as extraversion and emotional stability, will most likely find it much easier to adopt a leadership role than a child who grew up lacking such traits.

However, as shown by Warren Buffett who learned to become a more socially adept person by reading the self help book “How To Win Friends and Influence People” (Lasson 2009), personality traits associated with leadership, such as charisma, can also be learned later in life (Howell and Frost 1989, p.243).

Great Leaders: Born or Made?

In light of the evidence presented in this report, leadership development appears to arise as a result of a complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors. Genetics appears to be of most importance in personality development.

For example, if one examines the different temperaments of babies at age four months, which can range from babies who are withdrawn with a negative mood to babies who are approaching with a positive mood (Chess and Thomas 1998, p.144), one could make the claim that an element of leadership development is hereditable if babies at such an early age can already display traits which are consistent with the Big Five personality framework.

From a religious perspective, this could then be used to support the notion that some individuals, such as Jesus Christ or the Dalai Lama, are leaders from birth.

However, care must be taken when following this line of reasoning, because at present, no “leadership gene” has been identified.

If such a gene is ever discovered, then perhaps it may be possible to literally create leaders using a drug which activates this gene? For now, at least, we can only infer from personality traits who is likely to become a leader, and who is not.

In terms of environmental factors, the experiences one has in life, and in particular the situations a person finds themselves in, seems to play a big role in leader emergence and development.

Richard Branson for example, credits the continual challenges he experienced during his childhood as a significant factor in developing his independent nature (Branson 1999, p.14).

On a larger scale, an Accenture study of leaders found that leaders learned more about leadership from life and work experiences than they did from training programmes or formal study (Thomas and Cheese 2005, p.24), which suggests that learning from life experiences is a common characteristic shared by most, if not all, leaders.

Finally, it is important to recognise that a leader can not exist without followers. Would Napoleon Bonaparte or Julius Caesar for example, have become the leaders they are recognised as today if they had no followers? In all likelihood, no, because a leader is ultimately created through the willingness of their followers to follow them.

What one may conclude from the aforementioned information is that whilst genetics may predispose certain individuals to act like a leader and adopt a leadership role, individuals who do not have this predisposition may still become leaders providing they have the right experiences in life which give them the opportunity to develop leadership traits.

A leader can therefore be both born and made, but in the long run, it is the followers who determine who becomes a leader and who does not.


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Reviewed – 25th March 2016

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