adaptive and perceptive qualities, work, leadership, born, made, emotional intelligence

Leaders Are Made, Not Born, Here’s Why

Skills do not materialize in a vacuum—they must be cultivated.

Originally Published Aug. 11, 2015.

You’ve probably heard this question plenty of times before: Are leaders born or made? The answer: Well, it all depends on who you ask.

Interestingly enough, the theories that support either position have evolved over time. The archaic “Great Man Theory” asserts that only some people are born with innate traits that make them capable of leading. Thankfully, it has long been debunked and you can probably guess why.

In contrast, the process theory proposes that leaders are made in the process of successfully navigating life’s experiences. In practice, the latter just seems to make more sense.

Skills do not materialize in a vacuum—they must be cultivated. When they are, they form the key components of what researchers have termed “leadership complexity.” It is the true nature of how leaders evolve that makes the answer to this age old question so painfully obvious. Indeed, leaders are made and not born.

Here’s why.

There’s the whole “crucible” thing

People rarely develop leadership acumen without first experiencing a “crucible” or an intense, transformative experience that impacts their thinking, behavior, and ultimately leadership success. While the nature of these experiences vary in scope, the fact is that they must occur. These experiences shape your perspective and how you navigate the world around you. They ensure that a certain degree of learning takes place—sometimes even a complete overhaul—such as a paradigm shift.

It’s impossible for anyone to be born with these experiences. They can only occur as you interact with the world around you.

Selecting the terms “adaptive and perceptive qualities” suggest some degree of learning is required

The idea that leaders must be able to perceive nuances and adapt their thinking and behavior to a wide range of circumstances suggests that learning through prior experience is a prerequisite of the leadership status. How can you know what to do if you’ve never done it before? How can you possibly be any good at it? How do we learn how to navigate the world from birth? We certainly don’t come out knowing any of it. The path to leadership is certainly no different. Through trial and error you learn the best practices or create new ones that work.

Emotional Intelligence is the cornerstone of effective leadership

Just like any other skill set, emotional intelligence is learned over time. Leaders are at their best when they possess a healthy combination of self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, motivation, and empathy. These skills are absolutely fundamental to effective leadership. What’s clear is that no one is born having fully mastered any them. In fact, we only learn them vis-a-vis our relationship with others. Through observation, interpretation, interaction, and taking action, we establish a greater understanding of what these things mean. We reflect, evaluate, and conclude. Right, wrong, or indifferent, we also make decisions based on the knowledge we acquire in this process.

If you’ve ever questioned the evolution of leadership, it’s understandable. Theories and researchers have pondered it for hundreds of years. But, from a practical perspective, consider this: if we’re not born with it (and we aren’t), all signs point to it being a skione that is learned and developed over time.