Why Leaders are Made, not Born!

By | October 30, 2019

[October 30, 2019]  The idea that leaders are made and not born is one I’ve advanced in the pages of my leadership blog since its inception.  It has been one of my core principles; based on overwhelming evidence across time and cultures.  While new light emerges on the influence of our genetic makeup on leadership, nothing specific has materialized to sway our opinions; yet anyway.

Many of my colleagues in the military are seeing patterns emerge that substantiates this claim. Several arguments expand the idea that leaders are made, not born.

First, if leadership were innate, why are there so many styles of leadership?  Why there is so much deviation in how leaders solve problems, and why is there no specific definition that transcends cultures?  These are only a few questions that lead to the conclusion that what we learn is the core of successful leadership.

Second, leaders are not leaders alone.  If we were to peer inside the leader-follower dynamic, we would certainly conclude that leadership occurs within a specific social context.  This context (or outside conditions) affect the perceived effectiveness of leaders and explains why the best leaders also surround themselves with people who are competent and committed.

Third, leadership development works.  If leadership were inborn, then programs that help leaders would have no impact.  But the opposite is true.  When leaders make a conscious effort to improve upon their skills, things improve for them.  Facing their fears, seeking feedback, reading, and learning, and practice-practice-practice are keys to improving a leaders’ ability to win friends and influence people.  All of us have seen talented people who are lazy and lack passion.

The old nature-nurture argument continues to influence our view of leadership, and that is, of course, a good thing.  To continually discuss the push and pull of “nature” allows us to refine and enhance our argument that leaders are made, not born.  That is, however, not the end.

New theories are emerging from the world of psychoanalysis that suggests that there is some influence on our leadership capabilities that may be innate.  This work, mostly through the study of babies and young children, shows leadership emerging as a significant trait early in life.  This emergence is well before we could expect it to be — more on this discussion later in another article.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

20 thoughts on “Why Leaders are Made, not Born!

  1. Drew Dill

    So true! Great article on a very important subject. We should have some young people reading this leadership blog. I’ll be posting the link on my Facebook page.

    1. Mark Evans

      Thank you Watson. I read the article and it took some time because it’s long but very informative.
      I liked the introductory quote:
      Plato says … that our ‘‘necessary ideas’’ arise from the preexistence of the soul, are not derivable from experience—read monkeys for preexistence.
      Charles Darwin, M Notebooks (entry 128)

  2. Max Foster

    I’m not so sure the arguments made here are sufficient to close the book on the idea that our DNA doesn’t influence our ability for leadership success. Look across any nation’s or community’s leadership – over time – and you will see that some families are more prone to be in leader positions. Some will say they are just “privileged” and that explains all. I say there is something to the inborn qualities that has some impact.

    1. Joe Omerrod

      Spot-on comment, Max. I like the part where you note that some explainers of leadership pushes the Progressive ideology that privilege is the explainer of who is a leader and who is not. They miss the point entirely. More discussion on the topic is needed to tamp down that idea.

    2. Jerome Smith

      Perhaps we can agree that social influences are paramount, while inborn traits have some minor influence on a leader and his or her abilities.

      1. Doug Smith

        There are too many leftist ideologues to let that sort of intellectual compromise stand.

      2. Bryan Lee

        I don’t think the narrow-minded will agree. To debate and discuss means to open your mind to new ideas. That is not what a growing faction of liberals in the US are thinking. They are “better than us” according to their philosophy and nothing will stand in their way. Compromise and debate/discussions is an anathema to them.

  3. Joe the Aussie

    Greetings my American friends. I’ve been away on a special archaeological dig in the northern part of Australia so been unable to read my favorite website. All is well.

    Today’s article is great. Yes, we can and do leader development all the time; some informal and some formal (thru schooling). Bring on the big debate of nature vs nurture.


    1. Dennis Mathes

      Yes, welcome back and perhaps you can – at some point – give us an update on what you found. The big debate when I was in school, was this very item. I think we all (mostly all) agreed that we are indeed are influenced by our biology; depending on what that trait might have been and under what conditions.

  4. Army Captain

    Thanks Gen Satterfield. My sentiments exactly. We can “teach” leadership but perhaps not so much “character.”

  5. Doc Blackshear

    There are those who will debate this with you. I do, however, think you’ve hinted that there may be some innateness about leadership. Small? Perhaps so but the influence of thousands (millions?) of years of evolution would perhaps seem to influence us in some manner.

    1. Tomas Clooney

      Good to point this out, Doc. Let’s see where the argument for in born leader traits carries us.

    2. Willie Shrumburger

      Yes, this is no small thing to argue about. The idea that we can discuss and debate the issue is where we can also leverage a better understanding of the issues. Even if we don’t change our minds (or anyone for that matter) does not matter much at all. The fact that we discuss and debate means we all gain from it and have a deeper knowledge of the issues.

      1. Albert Ayer

        Excellent point, Willie. Can we do that here on Gen. Satterfield website on leadership? Or can we do this on some app on the internet?

  6. Georgie B.

    By the way, your article yesterday (although short) was one of the best to make me really think about the core of leadership. Well done. Today you’ve hit another home run for our leadership team.


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