Are leaders born or made?



It’s an oft-asked question, a debate that endures partly because we see strong arguments for both sides all around us: In your younger years, you may have had that schoolmate who seemed destined to be student body president, who headed most – if not all – the clubs and school organizations at such a young age. But at work, you may have also come across someone who literally worked her way to the top, who started at the very bottom of the hierarchy and steadily rose to become one of the organization’s top executives.

Were these people born to lead or did they just happen to have the right opportunities and support systems to emerge at the forefront?

A few weeks ago, Deloitte hosted a podcast precisely to discuss this issue. Two of our executives—Stacey Philpot, who is a human capital principal, and Kelly Monahan, who is a research manager, both based in Philadelphia – talked about a study they did on leadership in an effort to come up with a data-driven approach to identifying potential leaders.

Based on their experience, HR professionals tend to fall in the “leaders are made” side, talking up ways to prepare and develop high-performers, and give them the right opportunities to grow into the role of leader. Business executives, on the other hand, lean toward the “leaders are born” point of view, trusting their gut when deciding on who to promote, or asking HR to “find” that one person who, like a light switch, will turn an underperforming team around.

In a way, they’re both right. Philpot and Monahan found that the answer to the debate lies somewhere in between. Yes, there are individuals who already have strong potential to be inspiring leaders, but once you find them, you have to develop and nurture them, which takes time. The key is to have a highly diverse talent pool from which to choose the next leader. And here’s where the problems arise.

In their study of 245 organizations across the US, Philpot and Monahan found that 75 percent of respondents aspire to have a diverse organization; these organizations know that overall diversity leads to high performance. Yet only 11 percent of the respondents reported actually having a diverse organization.

It seems that despite their good intentions, these organizations can’t get past biases they may not even be aware of. Leaders still tend to promote people who resemble their own image, or people they’ve worked with closely at the expense of perhaps more talented candidates who haven’t had the same facetime with the boss.

Philpot and Monahan also talked about stereotypes that get in the way of making sound leadership decisions, such as the belief that extroverts – those who are gregarious and love crowds—make for good leaders. (In case you’re wondering, introverts have a good number of characteristics that make for good leaders, such as the ability to connect with others at a deeper level, and the tendency to be more reflective in their decision making.)

This is where the data comes in.

To get past these unconscious biases, Philpot advises leaders to get a measurable definition of what they mean by leadership potential. What attributes and traits are they looking for in people? What matters?

In case you haven’t answered those questions for your organization, the Deloitte researchers can do that for you. Their study allowed them to identify four characteristics that suggest an individual has the potential to be a great leader:

• Intrinsically motivated
• Has the ability to work well with others
• Can adapt to change
• Possesses natural business acumen and intelligence

They then developed a screening tool that managers can use to rate all of their people on a scale based on these four areas of potential. There is also an option to allow individuals to rate themselves so that managers can compare the results with their own ratings and get a bigger picture of a person’s potential.

Philpot and Monahan admit that human biases can still add dimension to this kind of approach to finding the next generation of leaders. It isn’t a perfect science, but it does help create a more inclusive environment for succession. And it gets you past the question of whether leaders are born or made. Maybe some of them are, while others grow into the role. What matters is that you are able to spot these individuals and then nurture them as they work toward reaching their full potential.

The author is a partner at the Audit & Assurance division of Navarro Amper & Co., a local member of Deloitte Southeast Asia Ltd. – a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited – comprising Deloitte practices operating in Brunei, Cambodia, Guam, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.


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