Are Leaders Born or Made? How We Can Empower Individuals to Become Great Leaders

By Lauren Hopkins

Are individuals born great leaders, or do they become great leaders through life experience and development

Whether your passion lies within the realm of leadership or not, you’ve probably heard this question before – for me, it was in my second-year organizational behaviour class at Acadia University. When my professor proposed the question, awkward silence hovered over the class. Whether it was because no one had an answer, or it was just too early on a Tuesday morning – I guess I’ll never know. I pondered for a while before my professor began her lecture on leadership, and the question eventually left my mind. I hadn’t given the idea much thought until recently, when I became interested in behaviour and leadership in my third year of university – an interest that has grown since I began working at PowerUp Leadership.

The answer? Great leaders emerge from failure, success, lessons learned, change, growth, experience. They take situations and turn them into opportunities to influence others to be their best possible selves. They are resilient, and do not cower in the face of uncertainty or challenge.

Let me explain.

To start, we can acknowledge that there is scientific evidence supporting the idea that genetics are responsible for about 30% of one’s leadership characteristics and capabilities. The majority, 70%, of leadership comes from development and learned experience. There is also scientific research proving individuals can learn to exhibit leadership qualities, which is great news for organizations.

Why is it dangerous to believe leaders are born?

Believing individuals are simply born natural leaders can lead to inefficiencies, problems, and missed opportunities. The thought that a great leader must be born with specific personality traits limits opportunities for those who may not exhibit these traits in a natural way. This doesn’t mean we can’t adopt and practice these observed approaches as humans. We must give people the chance to grow into leadership – there is always room for improvement with the right resources.

Those who believe themselves to be natural-born leaders, and find themselves ignoring opportunities for growth, can develop an arrogant attitude and may struggle with understanding their role as it relates to those they lead. Just because a “natural born leader” can handle their responsibilities well, everything is not guaranteed to fall magically into place. A true leader understands their role in influencing others to do their best on top of their own personal duties. Those entering a first-time leadership role with the same mindset may underestimate just what they are getting themselves into. A great leader is willing to put in the work above and beyond their own personal duties.

What role do today’s leaders play in creating the leaders of tomorrow?

Leadership development starts at a young age, which is why we need to pay close attention to how we raise and empower the younger generation. Our duty to future leaders is to provide the opportunities and resources they need now to become the leaders we will need in the future.

Studies on childhood education systems have shown current education models are not sufficiently preparing children for the real world, and many of them are lacking leadership skills. Many feel disconnected from the subjects they learn, or can’t picture how their curriculum relates to the outside world. We can help young people create a passion for work and education by enabling them to tie learning to their own personal interests and encouraging a sense of autonomy where they decide what they want to learn about.

There are two key considerations related to leadership development during childhood worth highlighting:

  1. Focus on teaching emotional intelligence from a young age and helping children understand empathy and sympathy. This will set them up for improved problem-solving skills.
  2. Create a place for children as part of the solution to the world’s problems. Help them discover a sense of purpose in work they view as meaningful.

If we want resilient and empowered leaders in our future workplaces who aren’t afraid of change, we need to lead by example and set them on the right path from a young age.

What can we do to encourage leadership development among our teams in the workplace?

Well, lucky for you – that’s our job.

It is important for organizations to realize that while some of your team members may not demonstrate strong leadership habits naturally, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be taught to be great leaders. When given intentional support, employees have so much potential to grow into leaders who can benefit the entire organization.

As a leader, there are things that you have to commit to doing to make this happen:

  1. First, be open-minded. Let me reiterate, just because an individual doesn’t come across as a natural leader does not mean they never will be. Give everyone the opportunity to show their strengths and identify their areas for improvement.
  2. Lead by example. If you have expectations for your employees, demonstrate these expectations. This will create a culture of trust and respect, allowing everyone to thrive.
  3. Provide your team with the resources they need to become great leaders. I cannot stress this enough: Millennials and Generation Z have expressed a desire for 1-on-1 coaching 50% more than their colleagues. Young workers want to succeed. They want to become strong leaders who produce measurable results for their company, but you need to enable them to do so.

For someone who is taking on a new leadership role or wants to improve their leadership capabilities in the early stages of their career, a mentor can do amazing things to help clarify personal and professional goals. Don’t know where to start? I invite you to check out our Emerging Leaders: Inspired Leadership Coaching Program. A number of great services are included in the package, but I want to emphasize the benefits:

  • Improve your ability to build trusting relationships within your workplace
  • Increase confidence and productivity – for yourself or among your team
  • Gain clarity on your career plan by defining measurable, achievable goals
  • Develop resilience and improve mental health

I’ll close with a quote I hope encourages you to consider how you define leadership, and the ways you can support others to become great leaders:

“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”

Eleanor Roosevelt