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Leadership – Nature or Nurture?


Exactly what is leadership? According to most researchers on the subject, it is the ability to influence a group of people to do what you want them to do. How you apply that “influence” relates to style, not leadership itself. So, the question that has been on the minds of researchers, forever it seems, is whether leaders are born (nature) or made (nurture).

Traditional Belief

Prior to the 20th century, we generally accepted the notion that people were born with leadership traits “built in.” They were more extroverted, exhibited an assertive personality, and were just naturally able to accumulate “followers.” Believers were quick to point out that “leadership” was not taught in schools and still natural leaders emerged from among those student ranks.

Contemporary Belief

Since the mid-20th century, however, psychologists began to study leadership and the particular traits that leaders had – both good leaders and some pretty bad ones (e.g., Adolf Hitler). And a variety of departments in universities began to study leadership as well. What these researchers came to believe was that leadership is about 1/3 nature and 2/3 nurture and that leadership skills can be learned.

Most Recent Study

The most recent nationally recognized study on leadership came out of the University of Illinois in the fall of 2014. A summary of the study is worth noting here.

The study began by defining leadership development as a process. An individual may move through this process through life experiences or through formal instruction and training.

The researchers established a course based upon this progression – defined simply as being ready, being willing, and then being able. Those students who, by self-reporting, indicated that they did not think they had the qualities necessary to be a leader were categorized as those who did not yet have “readiness.” Those students who expressed confidence in their leadership abilities were considered “ready.”

After 15 weeks, the following was determined. Those students who were not ready in the beginning improved in their readiness. Those students who were ready developed both the motivation to become leaders and then were able to learn and practice leadership skills successfully.

Conclusion of the Study

The other conclusion was this: Students who came into the course with “readiness” were those who had greater self-confidence and that came from their prior life experiences in which that readiness had developed. This seems reasonable, when we consider individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg who studied at Harvard. Zuckerberg had no formal training in leadership but he entered Harvard with some degree of readiness. Then, he had his early success with building a website on campus, and his self-confidence grew. He dropped out of Harvard to pursue Facebook, and along the way began to accumulate employees whom he had to lead. This would be natural, say the U. of Illinois researchers. His life experiences moved him through the process.

The Final Verdict

It would still seem that at least a “readiness” to lead can be found in heredity. Some children are born more extroverted and assertive than others. These qualities are either nurtured or not, and that determines whether that “ready” person actually assumes a leadership role.

For those who are born without those initial readiness traits, it appears that they can learn readiness (self-confidence) and develop the motivation and skills to become leaders.

A Word about Style

The study did not conduct any research on the leadership style that was developed in these students, nor did it attempt to identify certain personality traits with leadership styles. That, they believe, is a research subject field for the business department.


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