icon Born Leader vs. Made Leader and The Difference Between Them Skip to content
Born Leader vs. Made Leader and The Difference Between Them - HRDQ

Born Leader vs. Made Leader and The Difference Between Them

Are great leaders born with the qualities they need to succeed, or are they something that can be developed through training and experience?

That debate has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The truth is, it seems that some individuals inherit traits that help them succeed as leaders. At the same time, just because someone is born with these characteristics doesn't mean they will take the necessary steps to become a strong leader.

On the other hand, history has shown that individuals can work to develop their leadership skills over time, even when they weren't born with specific characteristics that are associated with effective leadership.

In this post, we'll compare and contrast the concept of born leaders vs. made leaders while also discussing how this debate has evolved throughout history.

Recommended Assessment
What's My Leadership Style
  • Improve leadership performance
  • Improve effectiveness in various situations
  • Learn your leadership style
Learn more

What Is a Born Leader? Exploring the Concept

Several leadership theories argue that leaders are born rather than made. In this concept, individuals possess innate characteristics and qualities that make them natural-born leaders.

The theory of leaders being born with what they need to succeed argues that certain traits, such as confidence, charisma, assertiveness, and intelligence, are inherited and give individuals an instinctive ability to influence and inspire others. These individuals are naturally inclined toward making decisions and taking charge of situations.

The idea that people are born with what it takes to lead is one that has dominated the discourse for ages. It wasn't until the 20th century that the perception of leadership skills being inherited at birth started to shift.

Decades of research were prompted, in particular, by the writings of Thomas Carlyle and Francis Galton in the 19th century. In his work, Carlyle identified the physical characteristics, skills, and talents shared by the powerful men of history. Galton examined the leadership qualities that could be found within the families of men who rose to power.

Both Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship and Galton's Hereditary Genius significantly contributed to initial support for the idea that leaders are born rather than made.

A Team Leader

A survey of qualitative reviews of academic studies was done in the late 1940s and 1950s, which prompted a significant shift in how researchers saw the motivating forces behind leadership. Researchers such as Stogdill and Mann found that even though specific traits came up repeatedly in leadership studies, people who take on a leadership role in one scenario might not do so in every circumstance.

This led researchers to see leadership as a situational approach rather than an enduring individual trait. This created a situation where researchers focused less on leadership traits and more on the behaviors of leaders that created effective results. For several decades, this was the predominant approach to leadership theory.

Trait theory experienced a reemergence later in the 20th century thanks to improvements in methodology. In studies from the final quarter of the century, researchers found that individuals can and do emerge across various tasks and situations as leaders. They also found that there are individual traits that have a significant relationship with the emergence of leadership, including:

  • Conscientiousness
  • Intelligence
  • Adjustment
  • General self-efficacy
  • Extraversion
  • Openness to experience

Though there has been renewed interest in trait theories, this doesn't mean they don't garner quite a bit of criticism. 

What Is a Made Leader? Exploring the Concept

As opposed to the idea that great leaders are born with the capabilities and qualities necessary to lead others effectively, some argue that determination, experience, and passion are more important than innate characteristics.

This notion is immortalized in the famous quote from Vince Lombardi: "Leaders aren't born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work." 

Individuals who become leaders through developing and refining their abilities over time might not be born with as many innate leadership traits as someone who is thought of as a "born" leader. People who could be considered "made" leaders will often seek out leadership development opportunities, invest in self-improvement, and learn from mentors and their own experiences. They can improve their decision-making abilities, communication skills, emotional intelligence, and other valuable leadership characteristics through dedication to continuous learning and practice.

Leader With Their Team

The question of whether leaders are born or made has been studied by research organizations and universities. One such study, performed by the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES), found that leaders are, in fact, made and not born.

This study suggests that leadership is ultimately 70% a result of lessons an individual learns through life experiences and 30% genetic. Because of the discrepancy in these numbers, the research team puts forward the notion that being ready and willing to learn how to be a leader is one of the most essential elements of developing leadership skills.

The Difference Between Born Leaders and Made Leaders

Of course, the most apparent difference between born and made leaders lies in the origin of their leadership traits. Individuals who could be considered born leaders are naturally predisposed to leadership roles thanks to possessing inherent traits associated with strong leadership. On the other hand, made leaders might not have been born with genetically inherited leadership traits but can develop their skills through experience and continuous learning.

The important thing is to recognize that both types of individuals have the ability to succeed in leadership roles. Though born leaders might receive something of a leg up when it comes to inheriting specific traits, this doesn't necessarily predispose them to succeed in every situation. At the same time, they might not have the same commitment to growth and learning as made leaders who have had to dedicate themselves to enhancing their leadership skills.

Leader Managing a Team

The truth is successful leadership often demands a combination of learned skills and innate qualities. Beyond that, each individual is a complex mix of personality traits, beliefs, and characteristics, and an individual who possesses one leadership trait might also be inclined toward behavior that isn't predictive of leadership success. Ultimately, leadership development programs, training, and practical experience can significantly impact a leader's efficacy, particularly when they are committed to improving their skills.

Born Leader vs. Made Leader: A Brief History of the Ongoing Debate

People have been trying to figure out what makes some individuals excel as leaders for centuries. In fact, writings as old as Plutarch's Lives and Plato's Republic dive into the question of which qualities are necessary for an individual to be a leader.

A Group of Leaders

Over time, our understanding of what makes a great leader has evolved significantly. 

"Great Man" Theories

"Great Man" leadership theories focus on the notion that leaders are born and not made. They posit that individuals are either naturally born with the necessary traits for leadership or aren't– it's impossible to learn how to be a leader through experience or training.

These types of theories became popular during the 1800s. Some of the most well-known leaders at the time helped to solidify this notion in the cultural mind.

A Great Team Leader

One man who had a significant influence on the Great Man theory was Thomas Carlyle. He believed the most significant leaders were born with the right characteristics and divine inspiration. One quote that captures the spirit of his theory is that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men."

Trait Theories

Trait theories are, in some ways, similar to Great Man theories. The idea is that individuals can be born with specific traits and qualities that help them succeed in leadership roles.

This type of theory focuses on particular behavioral characteristics or personality traits that are common among effective leaders.

A Strong Team Leader

For example, some of the traits that are frequently linked to strong leadership include:

  • Self-confidence
  • Extroversion
  • Courage
  • Capacity to motivate people
  • Assertiveness
  • Adaptability
  • Decisiveness
  • Creativity

Though this type of theory has been popular historically, psychologists and researchers have pushed back against the notion that certain people are predisposed to leadership because of inherited traits. One reason for the criticism is that people can possess these traits without being particularly inclined toward leadership or successful in their leadership endeavors.

Contingency Theories

There is a difference between this theory and the previous two. The Great Man and trait theories result strictly from the characteristics of the individual, while contingency theories also consider environmental variables.

A Leader Working With Their Team

According to the contingency theory, great leaders can adjust their behaviors depending on the context of a situation. In this line of thought, effective leadership isn't just a matter of possessing the right traits. It also has to do with finding the proper balance between the needs of the followers, the circumstances, and the behavior of the leader. 

Behavioral Theories

In contrast to "Great Man" theories, which propose that great leaders are born, not made, behavioral theories posit the opposite concept. These theories find their roots in behaviorism and argue that great leaders are made rather than born with the qualities they need to lead.

Leader Interacting With Their Team

Behaviorism is, in short, a school of thought that is based on the idea that all human behavior results from conditioning. Furthermore, all of an individual's conditioning results from interacting with their environment.

According to behavioral theories of leadership, individuals can learn to become leaders through observation, experience, and teaching. This doesn't just apply to leadership– the strictest behaviorists will say that individuals can be trained to perform any task as long as their physical capabilities allow it.

Situational Theories

Another common type of leadership theory includes those that fall into the category of situational theories. The main focus of this theory is that the most effective leaders can adjust and adapt their style and behavior based on the situation at hand.

Rather than arguing that leaders possess certain traits at birth that makes them succeed, the idea here is that it is a combination of the right characteristics and the awareness and flexibility to display different leadership styles based on the context.

Leader Listening to Team Members

This leadership theory doesn't explicitly focus on whether leaders are born or made. Instead, it highlights the ability of leaders to adapt to a wide variety of circumstances.

Participative Theories

Participative theories argue that the best leadership style is one that incorporates the input and feedback of others.

Leader Asking For Team Member Feedback

It is through the participation of team members and followers that the leader can be successful in some regards, as group members feel more committed and relevant when they feel they have some say.

Relationship Theories

You've probably also heard this type of leadership theory referred to as transformational leadership. Rather than solely focusing on the abilities and characteristics of the leader, this concept focuses on the connections that are formed between followers and their leaders.

Transformational leaders succeed when they can inspire and motivate people by helping illuminate the higher good and importance of the task at hand.

A Transformational Leader

Relationship theories of leadership don't specifically address the debate regarding whether leaders are born or made. Instead, the emphasis lands on the importance of specific leadership qualities best suited to motivating and inspiring others.

Management Theories

Finally, transactional theories of management theories base their concept of leadership on a system of rewards and punishments and focus on the role of group performance, supervision, and organization.

Leader Overseeing a Team

This is a common leadership theory used in business, where employees are rewarded for their success and reprimanded for their failures.

Making Great Leaders: Training For Success

While some individuals might possess qualities that give them an edge when it comes to effective leadership, being born with leadership traits doesn't necessarily indicate that a person will pursue leadership roles or even succeed as a leader in every situation. On the other hand, individuals can deliberately work to improve their leadership skills through training, education, and learning from experience.

A leader's ability (or lack thereof) to empower, persuade, and inspire their team can make or break an organization. Strong leadership in management can mean that your organization is more successful while also providing positive examples for team members as they work to develop their skills over time.

Strong Leadership

Though leadership is essential to any organization, the research suggests that great leaders are hard to come by. In fact, some studies have shown that forty percent of new leaders will fail within just a year and a half. The good news is that research also promotes the idea that leadership skills can be learned and, therefore, leaders can be made through the right training programs and resources.

Is it time for your management team to enhance their leadership skills? Explore our extensive library of Leadership Training Programs, designed to provide your managers with the necessary tools for success.

Do you have any questions about born or made leaders, their differences, or anything else we covered in this article? If so, please feel free to leave us a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We always make it a point to reply to every comment we receive, and we'd be more than happy to assist you however we can.

Recommended Assessment
What's My Leadership Style
  • Improve leadership performance
  • Improve effectiveness in various situations
  • Learn your leadership style
Learn more
Previous article What Are The 10 Essential Soft Skills for Project Management?
Next article 15 Online Whiteboard Tools for Training Online (Free and Paid)

Leave a comment

Comments must be approved before appearing

* Required fields

About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.