Skip to main content
Leaders: Are they born or made?

If you're not a natural born leader, fear not. With practice, you can learn the skills you need to make it to the top.

Imagine: John F. Kennedy being raised in poverty and obscurity, Martin Luther King Jr. growing up in a place where he would never experience oppression firsthand, and Warren Buffet never working a hard day in his young life. If these were the beginnings of these renowned figures, would they still have become leaders? Would they have become great leaders? Such questions are often asked, but experts offer a mix of answers when it comes to whether a leader’s destiny relies on what they’re born with versus the circumstances they are born into. 

Dual natures

In 1979, researchers in Minnesota set out to explore the roles of nature and nurture in the making of a leader. What they found by studying sets of twins—some raised together and some reared apart—is that both DNA and personal development play a role in determining the kind of individual you become.

“[Leaders are] roughly two-thirds made and one-third born,” asserts Ronald E. Riggio, PhD., Henry R. Kravis professor of leadership & organizational psychology and associate dean of the faculty at Claremont McKenna College.

It makes sense, he reasons. “You can’t imagine that someone who was reared by wolves in the forest could be a leader,” he notes.

Barry Z. Posner, Ph.D., Accolt-endowed professor of leadership at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, also believes that much of what makes a top dog tops can be learned. “Leadership is a skill,” he argues. “Like any other skill, there are a set of behaviors that effective leaders [demonstrate].” 

Common denominators

First and foremost, a strong leader is good at managing his or her image. “You’ve got to be able to look like a leader,” says Riggio, the author of The Practice of Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders. That means having a polished presence, because “one misstep can be disastrous.” He counts Hillary Clinton among those who do this well.

Riggio also says that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani embodied this quality in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. “He was constantly on TV [saying] I’m the leader, I’m in charge, I’m handling this and here are my experts,” Riggio notes. “He was ready.”

One-time presidential hopeful Howard Dean was not so lucky. His infamous scream during the 2004 debates is believed to have delivered his campaign a death blow because it tarnished his image in the eyes of so many.

Aside from appearance, Posner thinks that successful leaders also possess the ability to rally others around their causes. “They inspire a shared vision,” he says.  

“Can you get your followers to do things?” asks Riggio. He believes that to be a litmus test for a strong leader. “Can you inspire them to give you their best?”

Posner cites Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a dream” speech as a prime example of how to get an emotional—and action-oriented—response from others. “In order for his dream to have happened, he had to get other people to share that dream,” he says.

Born that way: The fast track to leadership

Great accomplishments may look effortless for some people who seem to have innate magnetism and contagious enthusiasm.

“If we talk about top-level leaders, there’s an affluence advantage,” notes Riggio. He explains that those who are born into families of powerful leaders grow up knowing how to behave around other powerful people, which gives them an edge. “That’s why so many political kids—like the Bushes and Kennedys—become successful politicians, too.”

Cultivating your leadership potential

But Riggio says that even John F. Kennedy knew he couldn’t sail through life resting on his pedigree. Although he used his family connections to gain invitations to Hollywood parties, he took the opportunity to learn how to attract his own adoring following.

“JFK set up his own school of observation,” explains Riggio. “He got to see how famous actors and actresses pulled it off.”

Though you can enhance your efficacy as a leader through practice, Posner cautions that not all people are cut out to be great.  “Leadership is a skill, but it doesn’t mean everyone is or can be equally skilled,” he says. “Everyone can learn to play the piano. But could you be a concert pianist? Probably not.”

Regardless, it still pays to stretch yourself to become a stronger leader. Though you can accomplish this by volunteering for special assignments at work, Posner says you can work out your leadership muscles just as well by taking the helm in a volunteer position or within your own family. “There is no shortage of opportunities,” he says.

Riggio adds, “Nothing helps you look better than preparation.”

So if you didn’t hit the genetic jackpot, rest assured that there are steps you can take to develop effective leadership skills.  “It’s not about being the tallest, brightest or prettiest,” says Posner. “It’s about how you behave.”