A few months ago, I had a lively debate of this age-old question: are leaders born or made? That is, are leaders born with traits that they can seamlessly translate into natural leadership abilities?
Even after all this time, I’m still thinking about it. The conversation got a bit heated mostly because I couldn’t believe it was still a question. After all, there is plenty of research that proves leadership skills are mostly developed. The most famous of this research was done by studying twins. The research concluded that leadership is about one-third genetic while two-thirds made or developed over time. The characteristics of leading a business, military unit, dance squad, or sports team are complex and diverse. It is impossible to expect a person to be born with all the qualities they need to lead.
Here’s my hot take: The people who still maintain that leaders are born are usually leaders themselves. It’s a great narrative. Those in leadership positions like being there. It’s a privileged place to be, plus they get to feel like special, genetically gifted trailblazers. The idea that anyone can learn to be influential, inspirational and visionary must be terrifying to those people.
The insistence, despite evidence, that leadership skills are purely genetic is a dangerous path. It suggests that leaders don’t need to work on it because they’re naturally blessed. Good leaders or managers understand their limits and ensure they invest in professional development.
The other risk of this kind of thinking is that this bias often affect hiring or promoting. Those who believe this fallacy will look for people with that traditional mix of management qualities. The typical idea of leadership is tied to traits like extroversion, decisiveness, assertiveness, and projected confidence. Case in point: how many times have we assumed the loudest person in the room is likely the boss? Conversely, sometimes people who are good at their job may seem like a natural fit for a promotion, but do they know how to manage a group?
So, if leaders are taught and developed, what makes a good leader?
- Leaders work for the team, not the other way around
A manager’s job is to support their team, helping them to do their job. I’ve met many so-called leaders who think it’s the other way around. One manager once told me that my job was “to make (him) look good.” This is a counter-productive way of thinking, putting the manager’s profile first (there’s a lot of research around the link between the manager and employee retention, but that’s for another blog post). Good leaders are not threatened by the skills, expertise, and strengths of their team. They support the team by adapting to their needs and supporting their efforts. This requires a certain level of EQ but it can also be learned through self-development.
- Leaders communicate vision and expectations clearly.
Good leaders can both conceive of a vision, but also convey it clearly to motivate their team to put it into action. They communicate their expectations and set milestones. While not everyone is an exceptional communicator or has superb strategic skills, these are learned competencies. Take it from me, someone who knew nothing about communicating clearly until I went to university. After 20 years in the biz, I still learn new tricks regularly.
- Leaders get the full picture.
The best managers know how to look at all the available information and spend time on macromanagement. They focus on strategy and empower their team to work on the actionable items. When managers start getting too involved in the tactics, they often get caught up in areas that their team members can easily tackle with guidance. The key is to use the right data to make strategic decisions or solve problems so that the team can best do their jobs.
- Leaders use their time wisely.
Time is always a premium, regardless if you’re naturally gifted leader or not. It’s important to figure out where efforts are best spent and use augmented management to help with the rest. For example, a shop floor manager in a manufacturing plant may spend hours a week plugging production, uptime and downtime data into a spreadsheet. With augmented management, this same manager recognizes that their time is better spent solving problems and interacting with the team. They use an AI tool (like Raven) to gather data, clean it, and extract actionable insights.
- Leaders learn continuously.
Finally, leaders recognize their own shortcomings and are actively curious. Since leadership skills can be developed, successful managers will seek professional and self-development throughout their careers.
About the author
Kindha Gorman is Raven’s Director of Communications. She has 20 years of experience in communications and teaches customer experience management at Algonquin College.