Introduction: Leaders born or made?

Late in the 19th century, the leadership theories that were highly popular was the great man theory, which emphasized that great men were born, not made. The theory argued that leadership qualities were inherited, especially by people from the upper class (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991). While this view of leadership has become obsolete, researchers have asserted still that leaders are, at least, partly born with the quality. Thus the question of leaders: born or made is still being asked repetitively as if it never reaches consensus. This article will examine the discussion of whether leaders are born or made and then it will draw a conclusion from the analysis.

Born with Leader’s Qualities, Made Through Learning and Experiences

Genes predetermine our energy level and cognitive capabilities, which both are critical to the activity of leading (Conger, 2004). Similarly, researchers have shown that heritable traits including intelligence and personality can predict leadership (Antonakis et al., 2011). There are even studies of identical twins having similar scores on charismatic leadership measures even when both were never met and raised in different households (Robbins & Judge, 2017). These arguments were, in a way, supporting the great man theory, stating that great men were born with an innate ability to lead.

However, seeing leaders strictly as predestined superior great men is a thing of the past. Nowadays, the term “great man” itself is irrelevant. In those early days of the theory, virtually all business leaders were men (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991). Now we can find many female leaders being positive examples in business and even government institutions.

Much more than the term, leadership theories have evolved far from the simplistic superior male models. In the early 20th century, the trait theory of leadership became the successor of the great man theory (Kinicki & Fugate, 2017). The theory did not conform to any assumptions about whether leadership traits were inherited or acquired, instead, it simply asserted that the characteristics of the leaders are different from those of the followers (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991). Later on, trait theorists also suggested that leadership traits can be developed through experience and learning (Kinicki & Fugate, 2017). This is how the view of leaders being made become much stronger.

Conger (2004) suggested that early life experience is as vital as later life experiences in developing leadership qualities. The qualities, such as self-confidence, drive for achievement, communication skills, and interpersonal competence are formed predominantly in the family environment. Experiences in school and college often provide first-hand opportunities to learn leadership. The findings are intriguing since organizations have little to no control over these early life experiences of people.

Studies also suggested that expert performance in many forms of work ventures can be attributed to experience and coaching, rather than simply to in-born talent or early-life experiences (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). Many business leaders agreed that their leadership developments were forged during periods of intense challenge and hardship (Conger, 2004). Through hardships, leaders’ behavior, traits, and skills are refined.

Even charisma, which is considered a leader’s common trait, can be taught. Researchers suggested that charismatic leadership is not exclusive only to world leaders, but instead, all of us can develop, within our own limitations, a more charismatic leadership style (Robbins & Judge, 2017). Research from Antonakis et al. (2011) has shown that training had significant effects on leader charisma ratings and that charisma had significant effects on ratings of leaders’ prototypicality and emergence. Since humans can be trained to practice some behaviors, it is also implied that leaders can be trained (Russell, 2011).

The question of whether leaders are born or made is a discussion of the past. Today, leadership training and development is a global industry worth USD 366 million (Westfall, 2019). Companies are willing to invest a huge amount of money in their human resource management to develop leadership qualities. The industry is built on the firm conclusion that leadership behavior, traits, and skills can be taught, and thus, leaders can be effectively made.


All of the evidence lead to the conclusion that leadership qualities are inherited and acquired, or in other words, leaders are made, but some are also born with qualities that made them more effective and enhanced. Just as a musical prodigy with innate talent should learn the complexity of musical performances, leaders with innate capabilities should also be hammered by experience and learning leadership practices.


Antonakis, J., Fenley, M., & Liechti, S. (2011). Can Charisma Be Taught? Tests of Two Interventions. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10(3), 374–396.

Conger, J. A. (2004). Developing leadership capability: What’s inside the black box? Academy of Management Perspectives, 18(3), 136–139.

Ericsson, K. A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49(8), 725–747.

Kinicki, A., & Fugate, M. (2017). Loose Leaf for Organizational Behavior: A Practical, Problem-Solving Approach (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.

Kirkpatick, S. A., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Leadership: do traits matter? Academy of Management Perspectives, 5(2), 48–60.

Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2017). Organizational Behavior, Global Edition (17th ed.). Pearson.

Russell, E. (2011, September 8). Leadership theories and style: A transitional approach. General Douglas MacArthur Military Leadership Writing Competition.

Westfall, C. (2019, June 21). Leadership Development Is A $366 Billion Industry: Here’s Why Most Programs Don’t Work. Forbes.

Read more about Leadership

One Comment

  1. Pingback: The worst part was that she was often right - Case study review

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *