Are Leaders Born or Made?

It’s unfortunate, but common, to see headlines about CEOs who have been fired because they've failed performance-wise, or have drawn too much negative attention personally or professionally. Poor-performing CEOs quickly drive down an organization’s success and often result in negative publicity, declining sales and loss of stakeholder confidence.

In some cases, these same CEOs have just come off a winning streak at other companies, but underperform in a new environment.  It begs the question: What makes or breaks a leader?  Is leadership an intrinsic trait?  Are some people just born leaders or does leadership require skills that must be continuously learned and nurtured?

Leo Apotheker had significant success while leading SAP. During his tenure there, he transformed R&D, enhanced technology platforms, and expanded various business models and customer segments. He also helped lead SAP to 18 consecutive quarters of double-digit software revenue growth. However, once he became CEO for HP, he failed miserably, leading the company to a loss of more than $30 billion in market capitalization. How is it that leaders shine in one situation and fail in another?

The question of whether leaders are born or made has been hotly debated for decades, evoking very strong opinions. Some people think leaders are born that way – naturally intelligent, strategic, visionary and charismatic, able to articulate a plan and rally their teams around it. Others believe that leaders are made – needing ongoing experience, training, development and coaching/mentoring. Some say that leaders are both born and made – naturally intelligent and extroverted, enhanced with education, training, coaching and experience

Center for Creative Leadership, a research firm, surveyed top leaders globally and found that the majority (52.4%) believed leaders were made, believing that leadership is more than just “genetics.” A minority (19.1%) believed that leaders were simply born. The remaining 28.5% believed it to be a combination of these factors – that leaders may have some intrinsic leadership skills (outgoing, intelligent and confident) but have also worked hard to gain valuable experience, perspective and knowledge to maximize their successes.

Leaders are delusional if they think they no longer need any development or coaching once they reach the C-suite. When leaders get complacent – feeling too comfortable in the top job – their successes decline rapidly. Conversely, when leaders depend on trusted advisors, executive coaches and other senior-level minds for counsel and honest feedback, they tend to be more in touch with the realities of their positions, teams and constituents.


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