Naturally-Born Leaders – Do They Truly Exist?

by Rachel Clapp-Smith, Associate Professor of Leadership, College of Business at Purdue University Northwest

People often describe really good leaders as “naturally born leaders.” No one comes from the womb leading, they learn to. But we have a tendency to use such descriptions because some people make leading “look” natural. So how do exceptional leaders get to the point where leading looks (and feels) natural? They practice – a lot! In fact, their practice is deliberate and it is frequent.

If leaders are so evidently made, why do we have a debate over whether they are born? Much research points to the conclusion that leaders are both made and born. For instance, decades of research focused on the traits that might predict leadership provides evidence that certain traits are necessary, but not sufficient, for leading. This means that you could be naturally pre-disposed to being optimistic, but do little else to hone your leadership. Your optimism is necessary for leadership, but it, alone, does not make you a leader. Another way to look at this is that while some people seem to “naturally” exude optimism, for others, it is a learned state, again, made. That is why the Both/And perspective on leadership is so important. Leaders are both made and born.

When it comes to developing as a leader, how do we possibly deal with this reality? My doctoral advisor, Bruce Avolio, framed the question of born vs. made as a ratio. What portion of your leadership is based on the tendencies that emerge from your DNA and how much is based on the experiences you’ve accumulated over your lifetime? Do you see your leadership as 90% born and 10% made? Or maybe you are 30% born and 70% made. The ratio depends on the individual and their own perspective and meaning of leadership. In fact, research would indicate that people with a growth mindset have a tendency to view their own leadership as being mostly made and only somewhat born, say, a 20/80 split. Whereas people with a fixed mindset will tend to see their leadership as mostly based on their DNA, and 80/20 split. Do you have any predictions about which one of these perspectives builds a tendency to put time into developing leadership? If you guessed the person with a growth mindset, you are absolutely correct. The irony here, is that the leaders who view leadership as something that can be learned through deliberate practice are not constrained by the “naturally-born” tendencies they have. Thus, they practice leading more and, as a result, appear more natural as leaders to us, the observers of their leadership behaviors.

As for those who believe their leadership to be relatively fixed, well, chances are, they will plateau at some point in their career where the demands of their role exceed their “inherent” ability to lead. By accepting what is in our DNA and expanding the possibilities of what can be developed, great leaders are both made and born, but they spend much more time on the made part of the equation, rendering leading a much more natural activity through practice and mastery.

About the author
Rachel is an Associate Professor of Leadership in the College of Business at Purdue University Northwest. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior and Leadership at the University of Nebraska and MBA in International Management at Thunderbird, the School of Global Management. Dr. Clapp-Smith has devoted her research to Global Mindset and Global Leadership Development, publishing articles in journals such as the Academy of Management Review, International Journal of Leadership Studies, Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, Human Resource Management, Cross-Cultural Management, European Journal of International Management, and the Journal of Business Studies. She has also published a chapter in Global Mindset: Advances in International Management and in a volume of Advances in Global Leadership. Dr. Clapp-Smith has presented at a number of annual meetings of the Academy of Management, International Leadership Association, and Midwest Academy of Management. She is a co-coordinator of the Network of Leadership Scholars and Director of The Leadership Center at Purdue University Northwest.