“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.” These immortal words come from Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi. In this quote, the belief that true leadership comes through experience, determination, and passion surfaces. Others will contend, however, that many leaders are born with leadership characteristics. These “natural-born leaders,” as they’re sometimes called, rise to the occasion because that’s just who they are. Whether managing a growing business or leading a major corporation, leaders emerge by developing their natural talents.
So the question still stands: Are leaders born or made? Research from the University of Illinois shows people can be molded into leaders. If this is true, that means anyone can become a leader if they want to be. That would mean entire companies might have whole teams of leaders ready to break free. We’ll explore this question by first looking at what scientists say. Then learn about some common traits found in great leaders and how you can develop these, too.
What Does Science Say About It?
Researchers across the globe have tried answering this question. Like many others, they want to know if there’s a genetic component to leadership or if it’s something people learn over time from a mentor or coach. One famous debate at the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy in 2016 took two groups from the Academic Fellows Program and had them argue over which side had the most evidence in their favor.
These groups looked at several studies of twins to compare leadership traits. The findings were not as conclusive as they likely hoped. The side which argued that leaders are born, not made, showed examples of twins who demonstrated impressive leadership capabilities, such as astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. The side which favored the “leadership is learned” argument showed examples of leadership principles and traits that cannot be genetic, such as a passion for helping others, integrity, and a vision for the future. The two groups concluded that the answer likely involved some element of both nature and nurture.
Leadership Traits and How to Develop Them
Most experts agree that exceptional leaders make time to develop their craft. For this reason, the following characteristics should be of particular focus when working on increasing leadership abilities.
1. Accepting Responsibility
When he was President of the United States, Harry S. Truman famously had a sign on his desk stating, “The Buck Stops Here.” That meant that he was ultimately responsible for whatever happened during his administration. Leaders take responsibility and never “pass the buck.” As Jocko Willink teaches in Extreme Ownership, true leaders take full ownership of everything their team does, including accepting the blame when things fall apart. It’s not always easy to do, but leaders know everyone is counting on them. Team members who see this will want to mimic this behavior as well. As Willink writes, “leadership is contagious.”
How to Accept Responsibility
- Do more than you’re required to do
- Show up on time
- Admit mistakes
- Apologize when necessary
- Don’t shift blame onto others
- Offer solutions to problems without being prompted
2. Constant Learning
The best leaders have an unyielding appetite for learning. They’re constantly looking for new information. This isn’t just out of necessity for their jobs—it’s also due to their curiosity. They keep up with the news, seek new ways to solve problems, and read about topics outside their expertise. As Bill Gates said in an interview with The Guardian, “I try to make time for reading each night. In addition to the usual newspapers and magazines, I make it a priority to read at least one newsweekly from cover to cover. If I were to read only what intrigues me—say, the science and business sections—then I would finish the magazine the same person I was when I started. So I read it all.”
Some of the world’s most prominent business leaders have a reputation for wanting to learn all the time. Jan Koum, the co-founder and former CEO of WhatsApp, lived in extreme poverty in Ukraine before moving to the U.S. where he faced even more difficulties. However, his desire to learn never faded. After only two years in the United States, Koum taught himself computer programming. He even joined a hacking group so he could learn all about cybersecurity, scalability, and networking. All of this hands-on learning would eventually pay off, and today, Koum has a net worth of almost $10 billion.
How to Keep Learning
- Read books, magazines, newspapers, and web articles about a variety of subjects
- Set aside time each day for reading
- Ask questions from people in other industries
- Keep an open mind
3. Motivating to Action
Great leaders hone in on the ability to inspire other people to action. When on a team, they keep their teammates focused on the goal, motivating them every step of the way. At times when frustration may set in, they raise everyone’s spirits. Some business leaders, like Elon Musk, aim to motivate people by sharing an inspirational vision. For years, Musk has talked about the importance of space exploration, setting goals many thought unachievable (such as having a million people living on Mars by the year 2050). There’s little doubt his employees share that vision and feel motivated by his words and infectious enthusiasm. The sign of a great leader is motivating people to see the seemingly impossible as possible.
How to Motivate Others
- Keep an optimistic attitude
- Focus on the positive and don’t dwell on the negative
- Encourage others to become the best version of themselves
- Share a vision and help others see it
4. Adapting to Changes
No matter the industry, change always happens. Effective leaders can adapt to those changes. They see change as an opportunity to grow and learn. They never take the more pessimistic route and think of change as bad. If anything, they view it all as a challenge to overcome and help other people see it that way, as well.
The ability to adapt goes hand in hand with the constant learning trait discussed above. If a leader always looks for new things to learn, they’ll be in a much better position to adapt to whatever changes occur. They remain focused on their goals but are flexible enough to react to the changing world around them. Returning to the Elon Musk example, SpaceX deals with constant new developments and discoveries that change the landscape of space exploration, but Musk remains firm in his commitment to his vision. SpaceX adapts to technological changes and learns from failed rocket launches to become a better company.
How to Adapt
- Stay calm as changes happen
- Take the time to learn as much about why the change is happening
- Face changes with courage and determination
- Stay focused on goals
5. Showing Empathy
Most people tend to think of great leaders as excellent public speakers and outgoing personalities. While it’s true charisma plays a role in developing followers, that doesn’t mean only extroverts make great leaders. Introverts can be leaders too because much of leadership boils down to how much emotional intelligence a person has.
Emotional intelligence consists of the leadership skills needed to employ feelings for motivation, planning, and forming bonds with other people. Empathy is part of that equation. Showing empathy means understanding what others are feeling and connecting with them on an emotional level. It’s how leaders solve conflicts, raise spirits, and act appropriately in any social setting.
How to Show Empathy
- Encourage people to voice their opinions and questions
- Support others when they’re struggling
- Praise others when they succeed
- Settle disagreements with compassion and understanding
Leadership Demands Work
While some may still argue that natural-born leaders exist, effective leadership still requires work. This indicates that leadership development is something you must do to gain the skills needed for your position. Thinking that true leadership comes from those born with it means only a select few would technically be ready to lead. As Warren G. Bennis notes, “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born—that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”
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