Are true leaders born or made?

Last week saw the launch of Linkup, a new social app, which encourages people to meet in the moment and live for today. What makes this business particularly remarkable is it went from concept to launch in just over a year, and along the way successfully raised just over £750,000 in investment to kickstart the venture. 

And what makes this business particularly special is that it was created by my son, Jack alongside fellow entrepreneur Ben Whatson. 

This wasn’t Jack’s first foray into launching a business, as back at the beginning of the first lockdown in 2020, he and Ben launched Actve, an online fitness platform based around exclusive content. 

Jack’s drive and success over such a short timeframe got me wondering – how much influence have I had on my son or is it all down to his genetic makeup?  Or to put it another way – are leaders made by nature or nurture?  

What is a Born Leader? 

This idea of a born leader has been around since the 19th century when historian Thomas Carlyle came up with the Great Man Theory of Leadership. It states that people in positions of power deserve to lead because of characteristics granted to them at birth, including 

personality, charisma, intelligence, and persuasiveness. These characteristics mark these people out as exceptions who lead on instinct and who will always materialise when there is great need. Napoleon, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King are often cited as naturally great leaders as they have all helped shape the world we live in. 

Inevitably, there was criticism of this theory. Partly because the theory assumed leaders could only be men and seemed to forget about women such as Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and Boudica, and partly because the idea that great leaders are heroes who accomplish great feats against the odds, on behalf of followers completely disregarded the environmental impact. Or as Herbert Spencer, a noted sociology and political theorist of the Victorian era put it: 

You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the secular state into which that race has slowly grown… Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

What is a Made Leader? 

“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.” 

This quote from Vince Lombardi, who many consider to be the greatest coach in American football history, completely discounts the idea that leaders are born. And it’s actually backed up by recent research which suggests leadership is only 30% genetic and 70% learned. Yes, some people may be born with traits that would suggest they could be good leaders, such as empathy, creative problem-solving and an ability to take charge, but ultimately, there will be areas they will need to develop. Take a look at this list of  Amazon’s leadership principles. Many of them simply can’t be something you innately know how to do but can only be acquired through learning and experience, such as ‘having a customer obsession’ or ‘hiring and developing the best’. 

Leadership, just like learning to surf or speaking a new language, takes time to master, but you could argue truly great leaders are the ones that realise this is the case. They are the ones who will take the time to understand themselves along with their innate strengths and weaknesses and then take the appropriate steps, such as coaching to address the areas they need to improve. Although, admittedly, whether this insight into how to be a great leader is born or acquired is hard to tell. 

So where does it leave Jack and me? 

Most experts believe that rather than either nature or nurture having a stronger influence, they both play a critical role in who we are and who we become. And in terms of leadership this makes absolute sense. Jack’s ambition, determination and drive have probably come through his genes whilst his ability to motivate others to share his vision and adapt to what life throws at him are skills he has acquired along the way.  

And I like to think I’ve had a role to play in that either directly through coaching or indirectly when he’s picked up on how I manage and react in particular work situations and applied that to his own circumstances. 

Of course, it’s impossible to say how much impact I have truly had, but one thing seems clear. True leadership isn’t down to nature or nurture, but down to both influences working in tandem. It’s a result of experience, determination, and a passion for what you are doing, along with a lot of hard work. And those traits are definitely ones Jack and I share in common. 

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