No matter how much raw leadership talent you were born with, your long-term effectiveness will depend on what you do with the talent you have now. Will you develop it, strengthen it, and share it? Or will you coast along, hoping that lackluster effort will somehow produce great influence? Scientific research backs up the idea that investment in leadership ability matters. This is a key point, because for decades (or maybe centuries), leadership theorists have argued over whether leaders are born or made. Are leadership traits predetermined or can they be learned? How does a leader emerge? Is leadership the result of nature or nurture? Join the treasure hunt and find a suprise at the end of it.
If leaders are born, then not everyone can be a leader, or at least not a great leader. According to this perspective, if you aren’t naturally gifted, or if you’ve never held a leadership role, or if you don’t come from a family of leaders, then maybe you aren’t “meant” to lead. This approach places a high value on inborn traits, such as your personality and gifts, and essentially states that only certain kinds of people make effective leaders.
On the other hand, if leaders are made, then innate gifts play no role and you could theoretically become as great a leader as the amount of effort you’re willing to put into it. According to this perspective, anyone can be a great leader if they just work hard enough. It’s an argument that may never be fully resolved, but scientific research has shown what most of us probably already suspected: there is some truth to both perspectives. One study focused on factors that influenced what it called “leadership role occupancy,” which simply means “holding a leadership position.” The study analyzed 238 sets of identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genetic background) and compared them to 188 sets of fraternal twins (who share only 50 percent of their genetic background). The analysis revealed that 30 percent of an individual’s leadership role occupancy could be attributed to genetic factors, and the remainder to non-shared environmental factors. In other words, nearly one-third of their leadership role could be related to traits they were born with, while over two-thirds was not. In another study, researchers also found support for the “born leader” idea, and they even went so far as to identify a specific genotype that was associated with leadership role occupancy. In this study, researchers found the genetic portion of leadership role occupancy to be 24 percent. They concluded that leadership role occupancy is “the complex product of genetic and environmental influences.”
These studies indicate that, indeed, there is a degree to which some people naturally tend toward leadership. But before you write yourself off by saying “I’m not a born leader,” note the percentages these studies revealed: only 24 to 30 percent of leadership role occupancy is related to genetics. That means anywhere from 70 to 76 percent depends on factors you can (at least to some extent) control, such as environment, training, hard work, opportunities, and persistence. Leaders are both born and made, but mostly made. Even if your genes are not in your favor, so to speak, your DNA doesn’t determine your leadership destiny—not even close.
Your leadership potential depends on you, not your family tree. The research is fascinating, but honestly, you don’t have to be a scientist to realize that leaders are mostly made. Simple observation of great leaders bears this out: you would be hard-pressed to find a specific style, personality, or background that is better than others when it comes to leadership.
Great leaders may share some qualities, skills, and values, but neither science nor human experience support the idea that only born leaders can be successful in leadership, or that born leaders will automatically be successful at leadership. Therefore, you can choose to become a leader. Even more important, you can choose to become a great leader, an effective leader, an influential leader. You make that choice by investing in yourself and your leadership role. You can’t control everything in your environment, but you can control a lot. And if you’re willing to invest in your leadership development, you can take whatever gifts, abilities, knowledge, and resources you start with and multiply them many times over.