Why leadership is a skill you learn, not just something you are born with

I recently encountered the tired old debate about whether leaders are born or made. It goes something like there is no point investing in developing people; you either have leadership ability or you don’t. Those who think they have it pedal the case. But it ignores the fact that you can develop your leadership capability if you are willing to learn. In my experience, supported by the research, leadership is about 30 percent genetic and 70 percent learned.

Renowned leadership author and scholar Warren Bennis, in his influential book, On Becoming a Leader, emphasises how important continuous learning and self-reflection is in the journey to become an effective leader. He argues leadership is not a static characteristic, rather it’s an ongoing process of growth and adaptation. Bennis believes people can cultivate their leadership skills through education, mentorship, and real-world experiences.

In his view, leadership is not something limited to a select few.

Anyone committed to self-improvement can develop themselves, he believes.

‘The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born-that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.’

Warren Bennis 1925-2014

Bennis also stresses the value of embracing failure and learning from mistakes.

Leadership is easy when things are going well. It’s when times are difficult that leaders need to step up. He argues setbacks and challenges are opportunities for growth and development.

🙋 In your experience, are leaders born or made? 🙋

Best regards, Brian

PS: I invite you to tune in to the latest episode of IBM’s Into the Breach podcast where host Mitch Mayne and I have a great conversation about developing leaders in cyber security. The episode title is ‘Cyber leaders: Stop being your own worst career enemy. Here’s how.’ We talk about impostor syndrome, the transition from expert to leader and more. Please forward it to anyone in your network you think would be interested.