Update 9-23-11:

For additional great examples of leaders can be both born and made, please see our latest research on how such leaders balance building trust and maintaining control,  and how they can create lasting positive change.

Update 5-25-10

This post continues to be one of our most popular.  As we write our sequel to our book, we have continued to think about this question, and these are some of the questions and issues we are considering:

  • In light of the fact that we believe that courage, humility and authenticity underpin trustworthy leaders, it would be interesting to discover how a leader develops these characteristics.
  • To what extent do leaders develop these characteristics early in life, or can they acquire them in adulthood?
  • How do leaders’ ability to build trust serve as a foundation for lasting positive change/culture?
  • What developmental experiences contribute to leaders’ ability to demonstrate trustworthiness and building trust with others?

Update 8-19-08:

The Reverend Dr. Jean Smith, the recently retired Executive Director of the Seamen’s Church Institute, who is featured in our book, spoke about this recently at a panel discussion on leading change.  Her husband Peter Smith, who was an executive with McNeil Consumer Products during the Tylenol crisis in 1981, and who recently retired as a marketing executive with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic was also part of the panel, along with Jeff McBride of McKinsey & Co.

All three discussed their leadership journeys, and their change management work involving other leaders as well, in ways that reaffirmed that great leaders are both born and made.  Early experiences in all three of their careers had significant effects on their own later career choices, their leadership decisions, and their effectiveness in creating positive change in organizations. They all possess what I would call innate qualities, including 1) high intelligence, 2) great energy and passion, and empathy based on outstanding communication skills, the latter of which may be partly genetic or learned at a very early age.  Nonetheless, each also had critical incidents and experiences that shaped how they lead, how they partner with others, and how they make a difference.

One set of insights that I gained from their remarks is that effective leaders need to make the most of their genetic endowments by reflecting on their experiences critically, waiting patiently for new opportunities but then quickly seizing them, and as much as any other approach, listening deeply to people around them.


Update 5-19-08

We answer this question in the first chapter of our new book, Trust is Everything — Become the Leader Others Will Follow, just published on Lulu.


Update 3-08-08:

The answer is both, because it takes courage, humility, and authenticity, which are influenced by nature and nurture. Our forthcoming book addresses this question directly as we profile how leaders build trust with their stakeholders. Stay tuned to this blog for details on our book launch!


Third Update 10/07:

I had great honor and pleasure of meeting with the Reverend Jean Smith Friday, September 21st, a week before her planned retirement from the Seamen’s Church Institute. In a number of interviews I did with her staff, the same themes kept getting repeated: Jean is a coach, a mentor, and a protector of her staff as they minister to mariners both domestic and from around the world. In a world which often views seafarers as either burdens or threats, she and her organization provided a trusted safe-haven for the people that bring us goods from around the world and make our economy even possible.


Second Update 4/07:

Here’s another take on the nature versus nurture perspective on leadership: I’ve decided that most failures of leadership are due in part because the leader wasn’t properly disciplined as a child. In other words, they were either “beaten up to much or not beaten enough.” An overstated perspective perhaps, but it seems to explain much to me. Individuals who weren’t disciplined enough or disciplined inconsistently as youngsters grow up to be narcissistic, unethical adults. Individuals who received discipline that is too harsh, or too arbitrary grow up to be authoritarian adults who disempower others they work with.

More thoughts later…


Update 10/2006: This post, originally written on May 8, 2006, continues to be one of our most popular, judging by the number of hits it receives each day. Since I wrote it, I have become even more convinced that leaders are made and not born. Our current deficiencies among our political and business leaders in my opinion, is not the result of poorly-born leaders, but rather poorly-made leaders. As we have demanded increasingly short-term and simplistic solutions to the many complex problems facing our organizations and our society, it is no wonder that our leaders have responded with inadequate and sometimes harmful solutions. We can, and should demand more from our leaders, and only elect those individuals who are willing and able to tackle problems courageously, who will tell the truth to their constituents, and who can learn from their mistakes.

Original post:

I have tried to teach my students over the years that leaders are made and not born. By this I mean that even though some individuals are naturally more inclined to become leaders, based on their early life experiences and yes, even genetics, all people have the capacity to become leaders if they have the desire and make the effort to do so.

I have had my students read Bob Quinn’s books Deep Change and Building the Bridge as you Walk on it. I have also provided what I consider to be some very compelling examples of leaders who were made, not born, including Jean Smith who leads the Seamen’s Church Institute, Bob Lintz, former executive at General Motors, the family members of Two Men and a Truck, International, Dennis Quaintance of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels, my college classmates Bill Bass and Dave Lassman, and many others. Despite these efforts, I still have many students who believe that these examples are really evidence of born leaders. While I believe that these people are extraordinary leaders, I still think they are ordinary people that rose to the challenge of creating transformational change.

What do you think? Are leaders born, or can they be made?

Add a comment


  • By Mary Ellen Sheets, May 7th, 2006 at 7:19 pm

    I think it’s a combination of the traits you inherit from your parents and the situations you face that mold your life. High energy helps.

  • By mikeinmanila, May 7th, 2006 at 9:54 pm

    Both; but overall it is environment, social and political foundations or causes.
    People who lead men or women also need that basic magnetic charm or the ability to inspire others.
    If leadership can be trained some of the best schools of leadership – Harvard, Yale, and West Point all produce leaders of different sorts.
    In a global perspective leadership can be born or breed or affected by the things that make the person want or desire to change the path and lead people to a new direction.
    The basic problem with many leaders today is they think it all packaging or salesmanship.

    Nothing inspires people to follow than when a person truly leads them – make a decision and sticks to a plan and reaches a goal.
    If leadership can be made then it is offend in the Boy Scout who finds the lost troops home, In the woman or girl who takes the steps to make others chose a path or direction to do something.
    It is in the Mom who takes her son to school on his first day and teaches to take that step into a classroom. It is in the teenager who says, he will study, h will get good grades because he knows he needs to do it to help his family out of poverty.
    It is in the even the illegal immigrant who chooses to climb a wall and seek out a new life in a place where his family can one day find hope in a land called promise.
    It is in all people, the ability to lead. to speak out to make the world a better place.
    To dream and make a new reality of an Idea.
    You can lead anyone can. it is born and bred into us by the creator, but also a leader- in anything must also listen or he’ll find himself or herself- looking back and seeing his followers listening to different voice.
    A leader can be bred can be born can be taught.
    But more often than not is the need of others who follow; to lead even for time a person gone adrift back on the path people want to follow them down.
    The difference between a good and bad leader? that is harder thing to judge.
    But the failure of those who follow is easy to see, when they walk over a edge of cliff and fall down into a gully of despair led by someone who could have been told. Stop.
    So good or bad leader? Born or bred? self taught or formally educated?
    The ability to look, listen, and, see clearly ahead is the true measure of how successful one can be at the point.

  • By Edward Smiley, May 8th, 2006 at 8:41 am

    As I watch my two year old daughter grow up, I have been in tune with personality traits she has displayed since early on in her life. Some of these traits were with her from birth, some since birth. There is some logic to the argument that Leaders are born. I think we are talking about personality traits that lend themselves to traits considered prevailant in leaders. However, these traits alone do not a leader make.

    Leaders come in many forms and some times their leadership is short lived, (flight 92). The argument can be made that leaders were made on that flight.

    Strong moral character, willingness to evaluate and take appropriate risks, the ability to analyze situations and predict the rise of a market or business unit. These traits can be “made”.

    It is my humble opinion that leaders are made rather than born.

  • By Brian Angle, May 8th, 2006 at 10:49 am

    I believe that leaders are made. With the appropriate demonstrated levels of willingness and ability, a person with potential can be molded into a leader through training, practical experience, and coaching. How effective they are in executing leadership is another question.

    I see it everyday in the workplace – I coach and lead 35 managers who direct 500 people on a daily basis – and have seen how these managers have evolved their leadership over time. My job is to teach, mentor, and coach the managers to effectively lead their teams. Take a new manager – all the willingness and desire in the world, but no demonstrated ability (upon entering the company). With the right direction and coaching, over time they become better leaders because they begin to demonstrate ability (ability defined as knowledge, skill, and experience).

    Once the manager has demonstrated the willingness and ability to lead their teams, consistency and execution becomes the primary focus. But I think that’s another topic…

  • By Will Ford, May 8th, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    I don’t think leaders are born. I think leaders are people who are convinced. It’s the willingness to believe in a group of people- to believe in their potential and then to risk part of yourself on that belief. Leadership happens when the group realizes your sacrifice or willingness to sacrifice. I think of this as the transition point of leadership. What follows is a natural progression of believing in a group of people and those same people reciprocating. What keeps the relationship going is trust.

    I guess in some strange way, a leader isn’t necessarily a person, but the willing interaction of a person and a group. Leadership is the relationship that happens.

  • By Christine, May 9th, 2006 at 9:01 am

    Hi Aneil,

    How are you? I clicked on the blog link in your email but there was a 404 error on the website. Anyway, I enjoy reading your blog – it’s interesting stuff. So my thoughts on this topic…I think leaders are born. I agree that leaders can be made, but they need to have those unique characteristics in their personality already, which I believe they are born with. Also, I think good leaders are “born” (e.g., Ghandi, Martin Luther King, etc.) and bad leaders are “made” (e.g., the majority of African political leaders, especially in Kenya!)

    Say hello to Karen for me. Talk to you soon,

    Christine Gatuiria

  • By Melanie Bergeron, May 9th, 2006 at 9:02 am

    In answer to your question about leaders, I strongly believe leadership is developed through circumstances people face. I agree with your students in that we are born with unique abilities. Circumstances in life may cause people with certain traits to be leaders. 🙂


  • By Brig Sorber, May 9th, 2006 at 9:05 am

    My answer would be you can be BORN with a silver spoon in your mouth but not born with a “leader” gene! Leaders learn from life’s school of hard knocks, watching others succeed and fail and surrounding yourself with successful people. You do not have to be smarter than the people you are leading in a certain field, you need to direct smarter people in tasks where their work pays off.

    In the service industry you need to know how customer’s think (most adults have this experience) and you need to know how the front line employees think. To do this you need to get your hands dirty and do the work. You now have some general guide lines to make operational decisions. With this information you can “lead” projects that may alter how the business is being performed. This in turn builds confidence others may have in you. This is what builds leadership.


    Brig Sorber, CFE
    V.P. Of Franchise Operations & Director of Licensing
    800 345-1070

  • By Johansen Levinson, May 9th, 2006 at 9:16 pm

    Captain Kirk vs Jean-Luc?

  • By dhooger, June 6th, 2006 at 8:01 am

    This is really not a one or the other question. Yes, true leadership requires abilities like charisma, accountability and passion that some are born with in abundance. However, we all have these qualities, whether we admit it or not, and they are more or less developed by the experiences that have shaped us, plus nature’s headstart.
    Are leaders born? Yes, I think so. Some people have blessed with these qualities in abundance at birth.
    Can leaders be made? Absolutely. One of the primary qualities that separates humans from the rest of life is self awareness and our ability to react, create and shape our actions. We clearly can strengthen our weaknesses, and play on our strengths. I, for one, was the antithesis of a leader in my 20s, and today run a successful software company and think I have leadership skills.
    Doug Hoogervorst

  • By Anonymous, October 21st, 2006 at 12:21 am

    Nature vs Nurture. Many disagree on the degree of the influence but all agree that they both have an effect on the outcome. Children begin forming their personalities at a very young age, as evident in my 2 boys. Both are great kids, of course, but they have very different traits. My 4 1/2 year old takes less risks than his 3 year old brother. Will they remain this way the rest of the life? Maybe not but I have realized that I will need to adapt my parenting based on their individual needs. I have also realized that with a little more encouragement and support during new events he is less hesistant the next time. I believe one reason this is improving is that he TRUSTS that I will make sure he doesn’t get hurt. Although he is not ready to parachute he is more comfortable in these circumstances.
    I believe leaders are the same. Some people are born with personality traits that make it easier for others to follow them, while others will have a harder time finding followers. This doesn’t mean that even the worst set of personality traits can’t be transformed into leadership ability, but it will take more work for these individuals.
    Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you will or even what to. If you are have the desire to lead and can establish the trust of others anyone can become a competent leader at some level.

    Born or Made? Both. Although improving your current status is dependent upon your desire, self awareness and the relationships you build.

  • By Ken Pickett, December 7th, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    I truly believe that every human is a born leader; therefore, I would agree that leaders are made. However, this is the tricky part, there are far too many would be leaders that are “faking it.” To me, leadership is NOT just following the examples of the truly great leaders. Leadership is blazing a NEW trail, one not necessarily seen by others. This personal courage can be developed and honed in every person that is born, but beware the mimmick.

    Ken Pickett

  • By Jonathan Segun Victor, March 26th, 2009 at 6:52 am

    To my own understanding and perception about leaders, i believe they are born and at same time made. This is so because experiences of life makes your character a major factor in leading people.my case for instance, i was head boy in primary school,head boy in high school and class Rep in Polytechnic and organizing secretary in school.All these i can attribute it that leaders are born and chosen by God.Pls.reply with the above e-mail Thanks.

  • By Jonathan Segun Victor, March 26th, 2009 at 6:57 am

    leaders are born and made.But experiences in life has a vital influence on the leaders.Both physical and spiritual.Thanks.

  • By Catherine Muigai, April 21st, 2009 at 6:06 am

    I totally agree with you and with those who say Leaders are ‘born’. You can decide to make a leader but he or she will never become a good leader, if leadership is not in him or her. Most of the good leaders we know were born to be leaders, they don’t just train to be leaders. Otherwise those who train to leaders are never good leaders, probably they chose leadership as a substitute career when they fail in their intended career.Others are just in leadership because of the income she or he gets fro the job, otherwise they care less about leadership.

  • By p. moore, October 4th, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Leaders are born. How do you teach personal courage integrity and the ability to connect with other people? I think people are born with these traits and they just got polished by situations.

  • By frieda, February 27th, 2013 at 9:34 am

    leaders are born….because in them they have the talent of inspiring, motivating and confidence to do what they do. in-born knowledge and skills…..:) i am a leader!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Add a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.