One of the most common questions I get about leadership is this: Are leaders born, or made? It is the common “nature versus nurture” question, which we will be going through in today’s podcast.  So in any good debate, you need to hear both sides. Side One: leaders are born, Side Two leaders are made.

We’ll look at data from sport (do big feet mean you’ll be a good swimmer?), twin studies (if leaders are born, are identical twins with 100% of the same genes both good leaders/bad leaders?) are extroverts good leaders (and introverts a weak second), and data business psychology (what percentage can be learnt?).

It’s a data rich episode, but as always, I finish with a tip for you to level up your leadership 1%, starting today.

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] One of the most common questions I get about leadership is this: Are leaders born, or made? It is the common “nature versus nurture” question, which we will be going through in today’s podcast. To solve this question, we first need to understand what leadership is, and what leadership isn’t.

[00:00:20] This is what leadership is not: it has nothing to do with your age. It has nothing to do with your seniority. It has nothing to do with the position of hierarchy in your company, it has nothing to do with how much money your company makes. And it certainly has nothing to do with your title. A lot of people think once I have a title, then I will be a leader. And this is absolutely not the case that is called Positional Power and it is one of the weakest types of leadership.

[00:00:53] This is what leadership is: it’s an ongoing process of social influence and inspiration, to bring out the best of every individual and make the most of them.

[00:01:03] As with any process it’s nurtured through hard effort, determination confidence, trial and error and above all experience. So in any good debate, you need to hear both sides. Side One: leaders are born, Side Two leaders are made. Let’s start with Side One, leaders are born. Trait Theory is one theory that supports this idea. So in Trait Theory, it’s all about the belief that people are born with traits such as communication skills, charisma and the ability to influence and inspire. These people lead groups of people to achieve collective goals and follow visions because of traits that they were born with.

[00:01:49] Let’s have a look at Side Two: leaders are made or leaders are trained.

[00:01:55] So this goes under Behavioral Theory. Behavioral Theory believes that leaders are made not born and depending on each individual, it might take more time or less time to master leadership. But the truth is over time with experience ongoing learning, courage, willingness, and practice, anyone can acquire the necessary skills to become a good leader.

[00:02:16] Let’s have a look at some research now. This is the Minnesota twin study. There’s always interesting data when it comes to twin studies. And that is because when you have identical twins, they have a hundred percent of the same genes fraternal twins share about 50% of their genes on average.

[00:02:34] So researchers reported in this twin study that genetic factors explained about 30% of individual differences. Whether people hold leadership positions in the workplace. However, what they also found is that environmental factors, especially work experience are substantially important in determining leadership.

[00:02:53] So according to this study, about 30% of leadership is your initial traits, which is that leaders are born and 70% is that leaders are made.

[00:03:05] Let’s now consider this as an idea in sport, whether great sports people are born or they’re made. For those Australians and probably across the world, you’d be familiar with Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe. He was well known for his big size 17 flipper feet. Now does this mean that all people with big feet are great swimmers? No. That is not the case. The famous basketballer Shaquille O’Neal is size 22. Does that mean he will be a good swimmer? Not necessarily. Big feet might give you an advantage, which is the Trait part of leadership, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be good at it.

[00:03:48] As an interesting fun fact on the side, Shaquille O’Neal actually admitted he is a size 20 notice size 22 has always reported. He said that his shoe size is a 20, but he likes to wear 22, because when he was young, he couldn’t afford proper shoes. So he had to wear his shoes tight. And he says now he always gets his shoes too big just to make sure he has a room.

[00:04:09] So Shaquille O’Neal was a great basketballer. Does that mean all tall people are great basketballers? No. So this same concept can be used in leadership. Sometimes you will have some innate traits that make it easier to be a good leader, but that doesn’t mean that if you have these traits, it will make you a good leader. And it certainly does not mean that it cannot be learned.

[00:04:32] Another thing to consider. If you believe that leaders are born. Is how our leadership has evolved. If you think back a few decades ago, leadership used to be about telling people what to do and them doing it. But leadership has really evolved because the world has changed and it’s continuing to change and leadership needs to change for this new world.

[00:04:54] The world nowadays is way too dynamic to think that people can be born with capacity to lead. Because that has changed over time. If leaders were born, would we still be leading the same way?

[00:05:05] Suppose your company has been in business for a long time. Do you think you’re outstanding leaders back in the two thousands continue to keep up with leadership demands today? How do they cope with remote teams? What about situations of crisis or soft skills required to keep employees engaged and supported?

[00:05:22] It’s currently an employee market. I’m sure everyone has heard of The Great Resignation. The barriers to setting up your own business now, compared to 20 years ago, is so different. I mean, 20 years ago I had the internet, but it was dial up and the idea of e-commerce or coming up with your own business or working from home or using zoom was so foreign.

[00:05:43] So really the leaders today have to be so different than the leaders of decades ago. Sure the core traits are similar, but how that gets played out has actually changed a lot.

[00:05:54] People are more interested in leaders who have heart and want to encourage them and support them. As opposed to the leaders that have the best technical skillset and can give them the answer.

[00:06:04] Some more research this time by a group of psychologists has proved that in the main leaders are mostly made. The best estimates offered by research is that leadership is about one third born and two thirds made. The ability to effectively lead, motivate and direct a group of people, whether that’s in business sport or politics requires such a complex set of skills. And through this research, they discovered it was mainly through experiences, self-development as well as access to training.

[00:06:33] The fact that leadership is mostly made is good news for us involved in leadership. It means that it can be developed. However, and this is the one third, there are some inborn characteristics that great leaders naturally have, which they can use to their advantage.

[00:06:49] One of the myths I would love to bust is the introvert versus extrovert. A lot of people naturally believe that those that are extroverted are better suited to leadership, then those that are introverted.

[00:07:02] Not only is it a common thought, but research suggests that extroverts are consistently associated with obtaining leadership positions and being more effective leaders.

[00:07:12] Think of Richard Branson, Winston Churchill. There is evidence that being bold, assertive or risk taking can be advantageous for leaders. But leaders also need to be smart and analyze situations to sit back and figure out a course of action.

[00:07:26] So, what have we learnt? We’ve learned that there are some innate traits that are supportive for leadership about 30%. But 70% of leadership is trainable.

[00:07:37] And perhaps Shakespeare came closest to the truth when he said “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. And as the saying of John F. Kennedy goes “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”. A wonderful leader John F. Kennedy also knew the importance of learning and leadership.

[00:08:00] While we’re on the quotes path, I’ve got one more to share with you, and this one is the great Michael Jordan. He defines true leaders in his own words, and he says, “earn your leadership every day”. And I think that’s a great way to reflect that leadership is a lifetime pursuit. Along with personal professional development. There’s always room for improvement. To learn new skills, new ways to strengthen your management and new techniques that can help you practice your leadership skills. And all of this brings you to be the person that people want to work for.

[00:08:29] So what’s the 1% you can take from today to Level Up your Leadership. Think about a leader that you admire and a trait of theirs that you would like to do more of.

[00:08:39] One of my great leadership lessons came from an unexpected place. I had volunteered to be part of a crew for a workshop, and I’d never met the woman that was leading the workshop. Something I noticed she did prior to starting was personally introduced herself to each of us who had volunteered.

[00:08:57] What I noticed was we were able to build trust faster, we were on the same page quicker, and when I had questions, I felt really comfortable to talk to her immediately about it. This is something that I have introduced across all areas of my life. Particularly in work when I am running a leadership program, I’ll take the time to introduce myself to each person.

[00:09:19] And even if it’s a one off workshop when I’m working with a leadership group, I often try and have a 15 minute zoom with each person prior just to help build that personal connection, help them understand who I am and for me to understand who they are. And so when we get into that training room, I’ve already built rapport with them, they already have trust and we can really hit the ground running.

[00:09:42] This has also been applied in my life outside work, whether that’s in surf lifesaving, or an a musical, I take the time to actually meet each person. Whether they’re there just for one rehearsal, one shift, or they’re a long-term person. Because what influences them being a long-term person is that you’ve taken the time to make them feel valued.

[00:10:03] It’s something I notice in businesses is a lot of people will say, “ah, I wait til they’ve been with the company for a few months before I make the effort because they probably just going to leave anyway”. Let me tell you they’re going to leave because no one made the effort to make them feel valued. It’s a small thing, but it does make a difference. When was the last time you made a personal connection to each person in your team, whether they report to you or not?

[00:10:28] I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. And thanks for listening today.

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