Leadership - Born or Bred

The Great Leadership Debate: Nature vs Nurture

Visit the best business schools on the planet and you are likely to hear a robust debate about the virtues of leadership. The central question is whether great leaders are born or bred; nature versus nurture.

Nature vs Nurture in Leadership Development

One theory argues that true leadership is an inborn trait that few possess. The other (and prevailing thought) is that leaders can be developed. [Writer aside: why wouldn’t a for-profit institution tell you they can train leaders?]

While certain natural talents afford some leaders with an innate sense of leadership, you certainly can train people to become better leaders. The military does it on a regular and reliable basis. Whether you look at the non-commissioned officers (NCOs) or commissioned officer corps, the development of leadership talent is a business for the military. People who exhibit good leadership talent are promoted to progressively more significant leadership roles until their capabilities are maximized.

As an example, few officers make it to the rank of general. Typically, officers are promoted several times in their career before their maximum efficiency as a leader is determined and the promotion train stops. The same holds true in corporate circles.

Some call this phenomenon the law of maximum incompetency. John Maxwell calls it simply “The Law of the Lid”. Everyone who aspires to become a leader has a lid on their ability to lead. You can start a career with some natural talent (i.e. born with it) and you can work toward increasing your leadership capacity by training and coaching. Yet according to Maxwell, you still hit a personal lid that limits the level of influence you achieve as a leader.

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It is not hard to see this concept in real life. Not everyone who tries their hand at business leadership becomes the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. In fact very few do it.

What to Do

So what is the mainstream business executive supposed to do with his or her current leadership capacity?

  • Seek valid and reliable feedback about your blind spots. This immediate and valuable insight that can vault your effort above what it is today. Knowing what you don’t know or can see is vital information with which you can make changes and grow.
  • Hire a coach. Coaching for executives is growing in acceptance and popularity. People have used coaches at the gym and for special hobbies and interests for quite some time. Why not use the same approach when seeking to increase your leadership influence.
  • Improve your circle of peers. Be open to networking with mastermind groups and coaching groups where you can work with peers to gain insight for best practices and have a personal board of directors to whom you report.
  • Read – it seems so simple, but the power of reading has been proven time and time again. Take recommendations from leaders you admire. Read their selections of books. Consume what they consume and you will begin to grow. Every leader I have ever admired has his/her own list. As soon as I asked about their favorites, they would gladly share. Of course some titles get repeated, but that just serves as proof of the impact of that book.

Leadership growth is possible. The best and greatest leaders claim a rigorous routine of seeking knowledge and information about ways to grow as leaders. Covey called it “sharpening the saw”. As you move through the phases of your career and life, things change. You can get worn down. There must be a ever-present desire to stay sharp or grow.