Leaders: Developed or DNA? | AboutLeaders.com
Article by Stephen Carman
April 26, 2016


Sports are often used as analogies for leadership qualities or leadership skills.

33-year-old Bubba Watson emerged as the winner of the Masters in 2012, accomplishing what few have in the 76-year history of the tournament.

Starting with whiffle balls in the back yard, Watson moved on to fields and courses around his home in Florida, never once paying for coaching, lessons, or techniques. In this article, Watson has been described as picking up the game “effortlessly and with so much spontaneity”. But is that really how it worked for Watson?

While there are a number of extremely talented individuals in a variety of fields, many of whom do have a natural talent, one could come to the erroneous conclusion that talent is a function of DNA without regard to the many long hours of practice and development.

Leadership Qualities vs. DNA

In the 80-plus years since leaders and leadership qualities have been studied, the born versus made dilemma has often come up. On the one hand the question is, “Are leaders born?” This means they naturally have the behaviors and traits to lead people and organizations.


On the other hand the question is ,“Are leaders made?” This means they do not have the leadership behaviors or traits needed, and these can and must be developed for them to effectively lead people and organizations.

Those that subscribe to the “leaders are born” perspective conclude there is no need to develop these leaders, because they either have the skills (via their birth) or do not, and therefore development is a waste of resources.

What is needed is not development, but a new leader. Those that subscribe to the “leaders are made” perspective conclude that leaders can and should be made, and therefore leadership development is critical for effective organizational leadership.

Attitudes About Leadership and Leader Development

We all have a point of view about the born vs. made question of leadership development. One way to discover our point-of-view is to seriously consider our reaction to our own leadership development or that of our direct reports. Is this something we actively pursue or avoid?

The point of this reflection is to consider if whether the pursuit or avoidance of leader development is because of an underlying attitude about leader capability — our own and that of others.

The challenge is that these questions are often considered on a continuum with each residing on polar opposites. The assumption being that it is either one or the other. What many are finding is that instead of approaching leader development from an either/or perspective, leader development should be approached as a both/and perspective.

Related:  What People Need from Their Leaders

Amazing Natural Talent?

Think about your favorite athlete or artist. There is no question these individuals have a certain amount of talent from birth. Because these talented individuals are so natural it can be easy to believe this is all there is to it — amazing natural talent.


Chances are they also have spent a good amount of time studying, practicing, and developing their craft. Viewing leader capability and leader development as a process that builds on existing leader traits and transforms over time as one refines existing skills and develops new leadership skills is becoming an important perspective.

In fact, a body of research is emerging that is investigating leader and leadership developmental readiness (Avolio & Hannah, 2008; Day, 2000; Riggio, 2008). Leader development focuses on an individual leader while leadership development is broader, focusing on “the shared leadership capacity of the organizational members” (Riggio, 2008, p. 386).

Balancing Born vs. Made

The challenge for these researchers and organizational members responsible for developing leaders is to have a developmental framework that balances the born/made dilemma and also recognizes the importance of leadership development as a process.

Avolio and Hannah (2008) suggest that leaders are developed through cyclical experiences over time, and leadership development is a lifelong developmental journey.


These experiences tend to include originating and turning point events that shape the development of leaders. Often, these originating and turning points result in failure. Rather than put these leaders out, these are good opportunities for developing lasting leader capability.

Turning back to the 2012 Masters tournament, Watson is reported to have said, “At the time I didn’t know it was practice, it was just something fun to do”. This is a great testament to the importance of development of any skill, even when there is an incredible amount of natural talent.

How Do You Encourage Leaders?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Article References
1. Avolio, B. J., & Hannah, S. T. (2008). Developmental readiness: Accelerating leader   development. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(4), 331-347.
2. Day, D. V. (2001). Leadership development: A review in context. The Leadership   Quarterly, 11(4), 581-613.
3. Riggio, R. E. (2008). Leadership development: The current state and future   expectations. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(4), 383-392.

Stephen Carman

Stephen is an organizational Talent Development Architect & Strategist. He has a Master’s Degree in Organizational Management and is pursuing a Ph.D in Organization & Management at Capella University.

  • I think the most import thing is to determine each individuals strengths and weaknesses. There is no one-size fits all approach. Everyone needs a specifically tailored plan.

    I struggle with developing those who do not think they need development. I think some of these people need a reality check and then a firm confirmation of that reality check. Sometimes its a dose of self-awareness thru self-evaluation tests like strength finder or emotional intelligence 2.0. Its really up to me as their leader to find that opportunity to pull back the curtain. Then, there is the person who is just happy with themselves and just does not see the need to do anything. These are difficult, you have to find their motivation and use it to push the person to get better and stretch themselves.

  • Eugenio Césare

    Excellent article Dr. Whitaker,

    Those who are born with traces of leadership competencies have great advantage, but this does not mean they will succeed in their careers. Talent helps but not all.

    Leadership means to share the business vision and create an environment for people to engage. Therefore, the leader must understand people, factors that motivate and consequently emotions. .

    I think we are all born with some leadership skills.

    In parallel to my career of 28 years in an automotive industry, I have studied and practiced a lot for leadership development.

    But the more I learn about people, more I see improved performance in the areas where I lead.

    So I’d say you can learn about leadership.

    The 360 feedback, and the results confirm that leadership makes all the difference.

    Likewise we have to keep constantly updated on techniques of industrial processes, we must invest in continuous improvement of leadership, because it is through people that we will get results.

    Eugenio Cesare, Mechanical Engineer, MBA and Leader.

  • Hi Steph. Excellent article and a point for thought for all HR personnel. All through my work experience as an HR Mgr, I have developed many a leader. This was only possible by observing them through various tasks assigned for the group and in different situations. Each and every person has it in him to be a leader. It is only when it is spotted and the said qualities are developed – a leader is made.

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