Leaders: born or made – let’s end the debate once and for all!
The ‘leaders: born or made’ (or nature or nurture) debate is one that comes up time and again (I cover it in the first chapter of my book, which is available for download here). For some people the evidence is so overwhelmingly clear that leaders are made that they think the debate is over, but I hear it repeated by managers over and over again, and even hear some consultants in our field buy into a ‘genetic basis’ for leadership.
So… I feel compelled to rant a bit on this subject!
Last month in the Guardian newspaper, the UK’s leading genetic psychologist, stated of the Human Genome Project’s search for genes for all kinds of psychological traits: ‘I’ve been looking for these genes for 15 years and I don’t have any.’ Lets just look at that – 15 years of work and no results for any psychological traits, never mind those associate with leadership!
A review of all the research into attempts to find a connection between psychological traits and genes since 1960, declared this research a failure. That no connection had been found in 50+ years of research. The author, Douglas Wahlsten, states:
“In human behaviour genetics, however, powerful new methods have failed to reveal even one bona fide, replicable gene pertinent to the normal range of variation in intelligence and personality. There is no explanatory or predictive value in that genetic information.”
He goes on to declare the end of this search:
“the vast army of researchers has now journeyed all the way to the far edge of the genetic forest and found nothing of any size worth further study.”
It’s time to end this debate once and for all – the evidence is clear, we just have to wake up and accept it!
It’s also important to consider the roots of the desire for a genetic basis for leadership. If we look at the history of leadership, it was originally a preserve of the few. Originally it was the divine right of kings and emperors, and then it was the right of Great Men, from the right families, backgrounds and upbringings. In the early part of the 20th Century we dabbled with eugenics to find great leaders.
During that time our thinking on leadership has evolved, and we have been widening the scope of who can be a leader. We have, over time, updated our thinking that women can be leaders, that people of different races, backgrounds and religions can be leaders. In the West the traditional view was that it was ‘civilised’ white people from the right families could only be leaders, and leaders such as Gandhi showed the flaws in that thinking.
The genetic argument for leadership, the argument that leaders are born and not made, is a throw back to such historic thinking. It is the modern equivalent of the ‘right background’ and limits leadership to another version of those with the ‘right breeding’. As such it is discriminatory and harmful and should be abandoned as an embarrassing relic of history.
So why do we hold on to it? Simple – because when there are some people born to be leaders, they must be great people, and we don’t see ourselves in that way. This allows us off the hook for being a leader and take responsibility for the world we find ourselves in. Those big difficult issues around us are someone else’s problem, not ours’ to solve and deal with.
So as well as being discriminatory, this belief allows us to let ourselves off the hook for doing something about the bigger problems that we find ourselves in – we get to leave it to politicians, business leaders and community leaders to solve the problems, while reserving the right to complain about it and say ‘they should be doing something about this’.
At the end of the day, leadership is available to all of us, is a choice. It is sometimes as simple as turning: “they should be doing something about this,” into: “why don’t I do something about this.”