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Research Suggests Two-Thirds of Leaders Are Made, Not Born

By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University

Are leaders made or born? According to Business2Community writer Paul Keijzer, research suggests there’s significant evidence on both sides of the issue: One-third of leaders are born to the role while two-thirds are made. Examples would include Queen Elizabeth II of Britain and the emperors of Japan among the elite one-third, and unprepared Vice President Harry Truman who succeeded to the presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in the midst of World War II is among the latter two-thirds.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

Yet as Keijzer says, “The good news for those of us involved in leadership development is leaders are made, not born.” That probably explains the multitude of books, blogs, seminars and speeches on how to become a leader. In fact, leadership development is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

How We Use Our Innate Abilities Are Determining Factors of Our Leadership Abilities

As humans, we are all born with innate qualities, but if, when and how we use them are determining factors of our leadership abilities. That “gut feeling” propels many of us to answer the call and to fulfill our life’s mission.

The question is whether an individual is given a chance to use those talents in a setting that requires leadership. This also begs the question from “nurture” enthusiasts: Is there a certain genetic makeup that determines a leader. And if so, why hasn’t this theory been proven?

The Innate Qualities of True Leaders

So whether or not you are a supporter of the nature vs. nurture theory, there are some innate qualities most, if not all, leaders possess, based on my experiences mentoring, coaching, and leading individuals:

  1. Leaders are essential to a group, company or organization success. Someone has to make the tough choices that will shape the future of the organization.
  2. Leaders need time to grow. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so leaders should not be placed in pivotal positions without prior experience.
  3. Leaders will fail. There’s no playbook to ensure the future, so every decision is a guess to a certain degree. I’ve yet to meet someone who has never failed, yet we fail to discuss this topic openly. So with every decision, there is risk involved and the potential to fail. Leaders need to invoke a culture where risk-taking is not punished, but viewed as a learning experience.
  4. Leaders need to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is crucial in gaining buy-in, likeability and trust. And if more leaders revealed their failures, I wonder what the world would look like.
  5. Leaders are inspirational. Leaders have to know how to work with people, through people and for people. Inspiring others means making people the priority for any task, which is often overlooked.
  6. Leaders are not managers. Many people interchange these two concepts, which leads to confusion. While many small organizations require individuals to wear many hats, a leader will be thinking about the future, and the manager will be focused on executing the here and now.
  7. The best leaders have mentors and coaches. This is a crucial factor that is often overlooked. Leaders need help, so mentors and coaches help guide leaders in the right direction. By discussing events, challenges, and goals, mentors and coaches can create a unique space to offer guidance as well as sharing experiences from similar situations.
  8. Leaders are strategic goal-setters. Leaders set goals and work toward a tangible end product. If you have ever played chess, you’ll agree that the best chess players can see four to five moves ahead. It’s the ability to foresee the reaction to your decisions and being able to counter with the move that’s best for you or your organization. It’s not only important to set a goal, but to strategically work toward that goal as well.
  9. Leaders are negotiators. Every conversation is a negotiation. From asking for tea to merging a multi-billion-dollar company, each move requires negotiation, both verbal and written.
  10. Leaders have a diverse set of opinions around them. Building a culture of groupthink, where everyone thinks the same, often leads to slower growth and profitability. Instead, true leaders create a culture to innovate and create, which often elicits many opinions, instead of just one.

To paraphrase Truman’s famous saying, the buck stops with the decision maker. So the ability to effectively motivate and lead a group of people entails a very complex set of skills, most of which are learned through experiences and self-development, as well as access to subsequent training. Leadership is an innate quality that is developed through experiences.

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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