icon [Guide] Can Leadership Skills Be Learned Or Are They Innate? Skip to content
[Guide] Can Leadership Skills Be Learned Or Are They Innate? - HRDQ

[Guide] Can Leadership Skills Be Learned Or Are They Innate?

People have been trying to determine whether leadership skills are innate or acquired for centuries. Over the years, countless studies have been devoted to the topic, and leadership theories cover the full spectrum of the nature vs. nurture leadership debate.

So, which is it? Do you have to be born with the skills to be a great leader, or can you be taught to lead later in life?

Entire books have been written on this topic, but in this article, we'd like to look at an overview of the different arguments that have been presented over time and the most recent research on the subject.

The Major Theories of Leadership

Over the years, countless leadership theories have been proposed as humans have tried to understand what makes a great leader. While earlier theories tended to focus on the notion that people are born with the necessary qualities for leadership, more recent ideas propose that situational variables and experience also significantly impact a person's ability to lead.

Leadership Building Blocks

Let's take a quick look at some of the major leadership theories to better understand the debate regarding whether leadership skills are innate or if they can be learned.

1. Great Man Theories

This type of theory became popular during the 1800s and still influences the conversation about leadership today. This perspective posits that great leaders are born with the qualities they need to lead, meaning that the ability to lead is innate.

A Company Leader

Theories of this sort argue that people can't learn how to be successful leaders. Instead, some people are born with characteristics that set them up to be great leaders, while others aren't. 

2. Trait Theories

Trait theories are similar to the Great Man theories mentioned above. This type of leadership theory proposes that individuals inherit specific traits or qualities that make them better leaders.

Leadership Guiding a Team

For example, characteristics like courage, self-confidence, and extroversion are all considered to be common traits of successful leaders. Trait theories focus on the idea that possessing these qualities determines whether someone will become a great leader. However, there has been a lot of pushback on this idea because of the reality that many individuals possess these traits but still never seek out leadership positions.

3. Contingency Theories

Rather than focusing on individuals' inherited traits, contingency theories look at the environmental variables that might impact the ideal leadership style for each situation.

Team Member Speaking With Leader

These theories propose that different situations require different types of leadership and that the best leaders can assess situations to determine the proper style and alter their behavior to best suit the circumstance.

4. Situational Theories

Team Making a Decision

Situational theories argue that different leadership styles are more or less appropriate for specific kinds of decision-making and that leaders determine the best path to take based on situational variables.

5. Behavioral Theories

This leadership theory is the opposite of the Great Man theories. Instead of proposing that great leaders are born, behavioral theories argue that great leaders are made.

Employee Learning Leadership Skills

Instead of focusing on leaders' internal states or mental qualities, behavioral theories focus on the actions of leaders. According to this leadership theory, people can learn how to be leaders through observation and teaching.

6. Participative Theories

Participative leadership theories argue that the best leadership style encourages contributions and participation from the team. These leaders take the feedback and input they receive into account when making decisions.

A Participative Team

On top of that, they also help their team feel more engaged in the decision-making process and more relevant to the organization overall.

7. Management Theories

Also known as transactional theories, management theories are commonly used in business.

Leader Managing a Team

Based on a system of rewards and punishments, this leadership theory primarily focuses on the role of organization, supervision, and overall group performance.

8. Relationship Theories

The last of the major types of leadership theories are known as relationship theories.

Leader Speaking With Employee

These theories look at the relationship between followers and leaders. Focused on their team's performance while also working to help each individual reach their full potential, this theory proposes that leadership is primarily about the ability to inspire and motivate people to understand the bigger picture while succeeding in their roles.

Are Leaders Born or Made?

The answer is that people can be born with leadership skills and learn them later in life. According to one study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, leadership tends to be only about 30% genetic.

That means that people not born with outstanding leadership traits aren't entirely out of luck when it comes to gaining the skills they need to lead a team or a group.

At the same time, skills learned early in a person's life can significantly impact how easy it is for them to lead later in life. Basically, all of the primary psychological elements that tend to make leaders effective (such as empathy, intelligence, humility, curiosity, integrity, etc.) can be reliably measured in children. Studies that have tested these traits in individuals when they are children and again when they are adults typically find that the kids that rank higher in leadership skills tend to have more advanced leadership skills when they are adults.

Leader Overseeing Duties

In short, leadership is something that can be taught to others, and it is something that can be learned. However, at the same time, some individuals seem more likely to gain the skills necessary for leadership than others. That is because some traits already appear early in life, and these qualities amplify the predisposition to lead.

Some theorize that having these qualities as a young person might motivate individuals to actively seek opportunities to learn leadership skills. Over time, they continue to develop their skills and become better able to solve problems, connect with others, healthily deal with stress and pressure, and more.

Whether you are working to improve your leadership skills or teaching your employees about the traits of great leaders, it's worth understanding that leadership skills can be learned. At the same time, it's possible that improving these qualities might come more easily to some people than others because of their experiences in early life and the skills they developed during this time.

What Is the Most Important Ingredient When Learning to Lead?

While all people might not be starting on an equal playing field when it comes to learning leadership skills, one characteristic has been found to be the most essential factor for success when it comes to learning leadership skills.

This vital ingredient isn't something you need to be born with, but it has to do with the mindset of the person working to become a leader.

What element will help individuals, regardless of their natural predisposition to leadership, gain the skills they need?


How motivated a person is to become a leader dramatically impacts their success in their attempts to learn leadership skills.

A Leader Guiding a Task

If you are working on improving your leadership skills or you are helping a team of managers become better leaders, this is an incredibly valuable piece of information. While some people might be born with specific traits that make them more likely to be a leader, and others might develop these qualities early in childhood due to environmental factors, anyone can gain the skills they need to lead if they are motivated and willing to do what it takes to become a great leader.

Why Should You Promote Leadership in the Workplace?

When we think about leadership, we tend to think about the head honcho– the big boss at the top of the hierarchy. However, your entire organization can benefit from leadership training that helps every team member learn essential soft skills.

Promoting Workplace Leadership

There isn't a time when a leader "achieves" leadership. This is a lifelong project that an individual can continue to improve and build upon over the years. There's no ceiling for good leadership– a person can continue getting more capable, skilled, and effective.

When you offer leadership training to your company, it benefits everyone involved. There are numerous positive effects on the organization, but it can also be remarkably impactful on the individuals that make your business what it is.

1. Lower Turnover Rate

You'll find that the better managed your teams are, the less turnover you deal with as an organization.

An Unhappy Employee

No one wants to work for a disorganized, unskilled, and disengaged leader, but employees will delight in arriving to work when they are led by someone who inspires them and motivates them to do their best every day.

2. Lowers Risk

The more heads you have in the game of making your company successful, the better.

A Team Managing Risks

When your management team is constantly working to improve their leadership skills, you'll find that each leader is better able to take on more responsibility with less risk to the organization overall.

3. Better Company Culture

Learning leadership skills is something that can genuinely have a positive impact on the individuals involved as well as the entire team. The more confidence your managers have in their ability to lead and direct employees, the healthier, more productive, and more positive environment they'll create for your teams.

Positive Company Culture

People that undergo leadership training are also more likely to be engaged at work, which can help to inspire and motivate other employees to do their best work every day.

4. Improved Productivity

Leaders and managers have a significant impact on how much work gets done every day in the office. They help their employees overcome obstacles, improve systems, solve problems, and develop creative solutions.

A Productive Team

On top of that, they can help boost each individual's performance by assisting them in setting goals and outlining the steps necessary to reach them.

5. Boosts Teamwork

Lastly, promoting leadership in the workplace can also have a positive impact on your team-building efforts in the office. If all of your employees participate in the leadership training program, you'll find that they can better understand where leaders are coming from in their decisions.

Team Working Together

This can help employees feel more engaged and involved while also helping them incorporate valuable leadership skills into their day-to-day operations.

What Skills Do You Need to Be a Great Leader?

Being a great leader requires a number of soft skills that can be learned and improved over time. Effective leadership isn't just about making decisions and telling people what to do– it involves motivating a team, communicating well, listening to feedback, and coming up with innovative solutions to problems.

A Leader in Thought

Here are some of the most common soft skills that great leaders possess to lead their team to success:

  • Communication skills: Being able to explain everything from particular tasks to larger organizational goals clearly.
  • Delegating: Identifying the skills of each team member and assigning tasks based on their abilities.
  • Motivation: Helping team members understand the bigger picture and how their tasks help the organization reach its goals.
  • Trustworthiness: Cultivating a culture of trust and creating an environment where employees feel comfortable bringing their concerns and questions to their leaders.
  • CreativityThinking outside the box to come up with solutions to problems in an ever-changing business environment.
  • Positivity: Leaders must help create a positive environment for their team, which can help create a healthy and happy company culture.
  • Responsibility: Being accountable for both the successes and the mistakes of the entire team.
  • Flexibility: Focusing on the organization's overall success, great leaders have to know how and when a course correction is necessary.

Being a leader is, in many ways, a role that requires individuals to possess a wide variety of skills and characteristics. To be successful, they typically need to be empathetic, committed, and reliable. They have to know when to take charge and when to give their team room to grow. While they need to have the managerial and organizational skills to keep their employees headed in the right direction, it's just as vital for them to create positive relationships and a healthy and happy working environment.

How Can You Learn the Leadership Skills You Need?

Great leadership is one of those things that is essential but also very difficult to find. Research suggests that around 40% of new leaders fail within eighteen months of starting their position. While this might sound a bit dire, new leaders can breathe a sigh of relief when they learn that leadership skills can be learned and improved over time.

Learning Leadership Skills

At HRDQ, we offer several training programs to help participants learn about their leadership styles and improve their leadership skills. To become a more effective leader and improve your performance, check out What's My Leadership Style.

Have any questions about leadership skills or anything we mentioned in this article? If so, please feel free to drop a comment below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment and question we receive, and we'd love to assist you however we can!

Previous article How to Put Together a New Employee Welcome Kit (With Ideas)


Jim Hopkins - May 5, 2023

I agree that leadership skills can be taught. However, ultimately, true leadership in most situations suggests willing followers and the ability and willingness to take responsibility for others in the downline or corresponding organizations. True leadership requires constant upgrading of leadership skills. Also, leadership can be very much situational and opportunistic. For instant, the commanding and effective mother, who is a compliant service representative at a fast food business.

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.