ArticlePDF Available

Are leaders born or made?



This paper examines an age old question of whether leaders are born or made. The paper considers various leadership theories and discusses different viewpoints to consider this question.
PSM310 Leadership and Business Acumen
Are leaders born or made?
Justin Di Giulio
Page 1 of 6
Justin V Di Giulio
Are leaders born or made?
Justin V Di Giulio
Parcel Locker 10012 59584 Docklands, Victoria, 3008
Email for correspondence:
This paper examines an age old question of whether leaders are born or made. The
paper considers various leadership theories and discusses different viewpoints to
consider this question.
Keywords: leadership, trait theory, emotional intelligence, behavioural theories
Are leaders born not made? That is a
question which has been plaguing people
interested in leadership for centuries.
There is no one definitive answer which
has successfully been proven. If they
cannot be made, then this debate should
be concluded here, and we should be
investing our time in genetic research to
identify the genes which have these traits
pre-programmed in DNA.
If they can be made, then this justifies the
industry that has emerged over the last ten
or so years for leadership consultants and
experts in the field. This paper examines
this question and examines and attempts
to provide an insight on different
leadership theories to that end.
Definition of Leadership
The definition of leadership which has
been adopted in this paper as being, “a
process by which a person influences
others to accomplish objectives or a goal,
by guiding them to ensure a cohesive and
coherent direction”. Northouse (2007, p3)
defines leadership as “a process whereby
an individual influences a group of
individuals in a new way to achieve a
common goal” which is similar, and as
such it was adopted as it resonated
strongly with the author.
Many theories of leadership exist, and
countless definitions exist. Authors such
as Sorensen (Sorensen 2000, p1) indicate
that “human beings have been keenly
interested in leaders and leadership”,
inferring great philosophers and thinkers
have been wrestling with this concept for
eras. Sorensen provides an insight into the
origin of the term “leader”, having first
appeared in English language from the
1300’s, and its meaning was “to travel” or
“to show the way”. So inherently, at
minimum, leaders must show a new way
towards a common goal.
Leadership theories
The contrast between Plato’s The
Republic (in Lee, 1955) and Machiavelli’s
The Prince (in Thomson, 2001) clearly
shows that historically, leaders can be
moral or immoral, good or evil, fair or
PSM310 Leadership and Business Acumen
Are leaders born or made?
Justin Di Giulio
Page 2 of 6
Justin V Di Giulio
untrustworthy. This is an interesting point,
and though preferred that a “great leader”
be “good” the author contends that it is
not absolute, and great leaders can lead
bad or immoral pursuits or organisations,
though these types of leaders tend to be
named other titles, as there is a tendency
in modern culture to avoid praising
negative or “bad” leaders. There are many
examples of great leaders, where their
characteristics and traits have been
As stated previously, human beings have
been interested in studying leaders for
centuries. Studying great leaders was a
way of analysing the characteristics of the
leader so that these could be understood
and emulated. This study has been called
“Great Man theory” and later “Trait
theory”, which is discussed further in the
next section of this paper.
In a modern context, leadership, as an
academic field has emerged really in the
twentieth century. Bass (in Sorensen
2000, p3) credits James MacGregor Burns
as being the instrumental researcher who
triggered an avalanche of research into the
topic of leadership after a 1978 lecture on
the subject. He is widely recognised as
the father of leadership studies, and since
then, many academic institutions and
academics focussing on the topic
particularly in the past decade. The past
ten years has seen a significant increase in
leadership material produced, which
continues to beg the questions that if a
leader is born and not developed, then
why study it? Is it nature or nurture?
“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.”
Bennis (n.d.).
Some great leaders emerge over time and
throughout history, there are many
examples of this. In more modern times,
people like Mahatma Gandhi, George
Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson
Mandela and Dr Martin Luther King are
but to name a few. “Great Man” theory
was the first emergent theory of
leadership, as it was a first attempted to
describe how leadership existed. These
people were characterised as heroic
almost mystical figures destined to rise to
This theory suggests that these great men
were somehow naturally skilled and
would change the world in some way.
Carlyle (1840) popularised this theory in
the 1840’s, and in later years, Spencer
(1896) argued successfully that great men
are the product of their society, and that
their actions would be impossible without
the social conditions built before their
Spencer (1896, p34) points out, "[Y]ou
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 social state into
which that race has slowly grown, before
he can remake his society, his society
must make him.” In other words, the
society in which the leader has grown up
in, prepares him to be a leader, and only
then he can take all his experiences and
lead and reform society for the better.
In later studies of leadership, Galton
(Oliver et al., 2008) a psychologist
spearheaded a field of study called Trait
theory which attempted to identify
individual leaders’ traits and to develop a
PSM310 Leadership and Business Acumen
Are leaders born or made?
Justin Di Giulio
Page 3 of 6
Justin V Di Giulio
set of characteristics that others can
understand and study.
Trait theory in its simplest form naturally
accords with the view that leaders are
born not made, as it studies individuals
and then attempts to cluster a core of
attributes. These include, achievement,
influence, responsibility (Stogdill 1974),
drive, motivation, (Kirkpatrick et al.
1991), self-confidence (Stogdill 1948),
cognitive ability, honesty and integrity,
(Zaccaro et al. 2004), and interpersonal
skills (McCall 1983). The information
does provide a comprehensive list,
however it shows a good sample of some
of the key traits that have been identified
with trait theory and which academics
have discussed.
The benefit of these two theories is that
they provide a general indication of a
person’s leadership potential. It provides
an opportunity for organisations to be able
to identify people who may have some
leadership skills, for which they can be
further developed. Criticism levelled at
these theories question why people who
possess these skills are sometimes not
leaders. Furthermore, why is it that in
some circumstances, CEO’s perform
excellently, yet in another environment
they may fail abysmally? This suggests
that there are other factors at play. These
theories also rely on a level of
subjectiveness to assess the traits in the
first instance. While it is conceded that
traits do play a key role in identifying
leadership, it is likely that this is only an
indicator and that we should be searching
more deeply.
A recent study (Hannah 2013, p 393) from
Wake University found that there are
neurological differences in the brains of
people who had been indicated as leaders.
This type of research may make it
possible to identify future leadership
candidates through brain scans.
An interesting statement by Lombardi,
(n.d.) is “Leaders aren't born they are
made. And they are made just like
anything else, through hard work. And
that's the price we'll have to pay to
achieve that goal, or any goal.”
Parallels can be drawn with music, that
there are talented performers such as
singers, who despite no training, are able
to perform with excellence. What many
may not consider and what may be
discounted, is that, that person may have
grown up with singers as parents, or
listened to a lot of music or the like, and
was surrounded by influences and had
inadvertent ‘informal’ training. They may
have had raw talent which as a
consequence of their various experiences
had moulded them.
Many believe that nurturing skills and
growing them is the key to successful
leadership. Basketball superstar Jordon,
M. (n.d.) is quoted as saying “Everybody
has talent, but ability takes hard work.”
This suggests that everyone has ability,
and that anyone can grow and develop
into someone who is competent and
possibly even very good.
The role of a person’s preferences may
influence how fast they develop
themselves and in what areas that they
may develop. If they have natural interests
which favour what is considered
leadership traits they may be more
interested in further building and
developing these skills, and hence, one
day become effective leaders.
Behavioural leadership theories assume
leaders can be developed and that
leadership and leadership skills can be
learned. One of the more famous theories
was Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid
(1964) which sought to define behavioural
traits and map them against two axis,
PSM310 Leadership and Business Acumen
Are leaders born or made?
Justin Di Giulio
Page 4 of 6
Justin V Di Giulio
concern for people and concern for
production. This attempted to define
different leadership styles based on these
dimensions. Research solely on
behaviours eventually lost steam, as there
was inconsistencies in the research’s
situations in which they were applied.
More recent research has focused on the
importance of context or the larger
system in which a leader and followers
work” (Allen et al, 2012). Two models of
“Emotional Intelligence” (EI) currently
exist, these are namely the ability model
(Mayer & Salovey, 1997) and a mixed
model (Bar-On, 2006; Goleman, 1995).
Goleman (1995) focused his research on
four basic competencies. These four
competency areas included self-
awareness, social awareness, self-
management and social skills. People who
displayed higher levels of ability in these
areas were considered to have higher
emotional intelligence.
Increasingly research suggests that
Emotional Intelligence plays a very
important role in determining leadership
success in life. Furthermore, after
extensive research, Bar-On (2006)
developed a measure to determine how
effective leaders may be by determining
their emotional intelligence quotient
(E.Q.). People with higher E.Q. scores, are
considered to have high levels of
emotional intelligence and hence perform
better in the work environment in settings
where empathy and soft-skills are
required. Easlis (2012) indicates
employees with higher E.Q.’s have higher
employee satisfaction scores.
As a consequence of this research, other
fields of study have emerged. An
interesting theory called “Emotionally
intelligent leadership” (Allen, 2012) has
emerged and combines research in
emotional intelligence and leadership
theory in an integrated fashion in an
attempt to understand and define how
these two areas of study work together.
So, can emotional intelligence be learned,
or is innate in the person? Goldsmith
(2009) undertook a review of research by
Delphine (2009, p. 36) that it can be
Goldsmith (2009) states “Delphine and
her colleagues found that members of the
group that received the training showed a
significant improvement in their ability to
identify their feelings and the feelings of
others, as well as to manage and control
their emotions. What's more, these
improvements were apparent not only
right after the training but also six months
There are many differing views on
whether leaders are born or made. This
paper attempts to examine some of the
theories and provide some additional
perspectives on this topic. These
perspectives include whether leadership is
a trait of individuals, whether leaders are
born with neurological differences, or
whether emotional intelligence can be
developed. It is this author’s contention
that similar to other types of talents,
leadership as a skill can be learned. There
may be a small percentage of leaders who
may be born with individual traits which
lend itself to leadership, but leadership
itself can be learned, especially by
committed individuals who display an
interest in doing so.
(Total Words: 1901.)
PSM310 Leadership and Business Acumen
Are leaders born or made?
Justin Di Giulio
Page 5 of 6
Justin V Di Giulio
1. Allen, S. J. et al 2012, ‘Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: An Integrative,Process-
Oriented Theory of Student Leadership’, Journal of Leadership Education, vol.11,
ed. 1.
2. Bar-On, R. 2006, ‘The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI)’,
Psichothema, vol. 18 (Suppl), ed. pp.13-25.
3. Blake, R.; Mouton, J. 1964, The Managerial Grid: The Key to Leadership
Excellence, Gulf Publishing Co, Houston.
4. Burns, James M, (n.d.), Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and
Administration, Sage Publications, viewed 27 June 2013,
5. Carlyle, T 1840, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, Chapman
and Hall, Retrieved June 2013 from Project Gutenberg,
6. Dalglish, C and Miller P, 2010, Leadership: Understanding its Global
Impact 1st Edition, Tilde University Press, Prahran, Victoria.
7. Delphine N., 2009, ‘Increasing emotional intelligence: (How) is it possible?’
Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 47, pp. 36–41.
8. Ealias, Abi 2012 et al, ‘Emotional Intelligence and Job Satisfaction: A
9. Correlational study’, The International Journal, vol. 01, ed. Feb 2012, pp. 37-42
10. Goldsmith, K 2009, ‘Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?’, The Greater Good,
Berkeley University, Berkeley, California, USA, viewed on 10 July 2013,
11. Goleman, D. 1995, Emotional intelligence, Bantam Books, New York:
12. Hannah, S 2013, ‘The Psychological and Neurological Bases of Leader Self-
Complexity and Effects on Adaptive Decision-Making’, Journal of Applied
Psychology - American Psychological Association, Vol. 98, No. 3, pp. 393– 411,
viewed 10 July 2013,
13. Hoffman, B. J., et al. 2011, ‘Great man or great myth? A quantitative review of
the relationship between individual differences and leader effectiveness’ Journal of
Occupational and Organizational Psychology, vol. 84, ed.2, pp. 347-381.
14. Kirkpatick, Shelley A et al 1991, ‘Leadership: do traits matter?.’ The Executive, vol.
5, ed. 2 Jordon, M. (n.d.), Goodreads, Self-improvement quotes, viewed 10 July
15. Lombardi, V (n.d.) , Quotations, Brainyquote, viewed 27 June 2013,
16. Johns, O. et al, 2008, Handbook of Personality Theory and Research, (3
The Guildford Press, New York, pp. 48-60.
17. Machiavelli, N 2001, The Prince, trans. N.H. Thomson. Vol. XXXVI, Part 1. The
Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;,. 26 June 2013.
PSM310 Leadership and Business Acumen
Are leaders born or made?
Justin Di Giulio
Page 6 of 6
Justin V Di Giulio
18. Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. 1997, What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey, &
D. Sluyter (Eds.), Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational
implications (pp. 3–34), Basic Books, New York.
19. McCall, M. et al,. 1983, ‘What makes a top executive.’ Psychology Today vol. 17,
ed. 2, pp. 26-31.
20. Northouse, G 2007, Leadership theory and practice. (3
ed.), Thousand Oak,
London, New Delhi.
21. Plato, 1955, The Republic, trans. H.D.P. Lee, London, Penguin Books.
22. Ruvolo, C. et al., 2004, ‘Leaders Are Made, Not Born The Critical Role of a
Developmental Framework to Facilitate an Organizational Culture of Development’,
Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, vol. 56, no. 1, pp. 10-19.
23. Sorenson, Georgia 2000, ‘An intellectual history of leadership studies: The role of
James MacGregor Burns.’ Annual meeting of the American Political Science
Association, Washington DC.
24. Spencer, H. 1896, The Study of Sociology, Appleton, Retrieved 6 July 2013 from
25. Stogdill, R. M. 1948, ‘Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the
lite1rature’, The Journal of psychology, vol. 25, ed. 1, pp. 35-71.
26. Stogdill, R. M. 1974, Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research,
Free Press, New York.
27. Williams, A., 2013, ‘Great leaders are born, not made: Their brains are just wired
differently, scientists say’, Daily Mail Online, 12 April 2013. Retrieved 8 July 2013,
28. Zaccaro, Stephen J., 2004, Leader traits and attributes’, The nature of leadership,
pp. 101-124.
The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily constitute those of the
Victorian State Government and/or past employers.
... When someone finds his vision and mission, there is peace within inner peace and forms a solid building of character, every speech and action begins to exert influence on the environment, and its existence encourages change in its organization, that is when someone is born a true leader [11]. As a reflection of being a true leader, the leader is expected to be a wise figure [4], brave in making decisions authoritative, and able to lead his organization to achieve a common goal [1]. ...
Full-text available
This research aimed to show the leadership diagnostic survey in students by using a bias quiz. A true leader was the highest level of leadership that was able to bring the company to achieve its goals by optimizing all available resources. In reality, leaders were difficult to avoid cognitive bias, which would affect the quality of leadership and decision making. This research was conducted in survey research by collecting data through giving questions or statements to respondents in written form using Google Form and shared through social media, specifically Line, WhatsApp, and Instagram. This research population was randomly selected, with a total number of respondents initially targeted at 100 respondents. It is found that by conducting a diagnostic survey of students, an illustration of the bias in the implementation of leadership will be obtained, gain awareness, and correct the bias.
Full-text available
Emotionally intelligent leadership (EIL) theory combines relevant models, theories, and research in the areas of emotional intelligence (EI) and leadership. With an intentional focus on context, self and others, emotionally intelligent leaders facilitate the attainment of desired outcomes. The 21 capacities described by the theory equip individuals with the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics to achieve desired results. The purpose of this article is to propose an integrative, process-oriented EIL theory to provide a framework for conceptualizing and integrating future research and practice. The authors review and organize research and theory in emotional intelligence and leadership within the context of higher education, introduce the EIL model, and provide suggestions for future research. The article concludes with practical implications for leadership development in the context of higher education.
Full-text available
The study of leader traits has a long and controversial history. While research shows that the possession of certain traits alone does not guarantee leadership success, there is evidence that effective leaders are different from other people in certain key respects. Key leader traits include: drive (a broad term which includes achievement, motivation, ambition, energy, tenacity, and initiative); leadership motivation (the desire to lead but not to seek power as an end in itself); honesty and integrity; self-confidence (which is associated with emotional stability); cognitive ability; and knowledge of the business. There is less clear evidence for traits such as charisma, creativity and flexibility. We believe that the key leader traits help the leader acquire necessary skills; formulate an organizational vision and an effective plan for pursuing it; and take the necessary steps to implement the vision in reality.
This study presents a meta-analysis of 25 individual differences proposed to be related to effective leadership, with an emphasis on comparing trait-like (e.g. personality and intelligence) to state-like individual differences (e.g. knowledge and skills). The results indicate that although both trait-like (achievement motivation, energy, dominance, honesty/integrity, self-confidence, creativity, and charisma) and state-like (interpersonal skills, oral communication, written communication, administrative/management skills, problem-solving skills, and decision making) individual differences were consistent predictors of effective leadership, the impact of trait-like and state-like individual differences was modest overall and did not differ substantially (= .27 and .26, respectively). Finally, organizational level of the leader, method of predictor and criterion measurement, and organization type moderated the relationship between individual differences and effective leadership.
Based on a series of lectures delivered in 1840, Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History considers the creation of heroes and the ways they exert heroic leadership. From the divine and prophetic (Odin and Muhammad) to the poetic (Dante and Shakespeare) to the religious (Luther and Knox) to the political (Cromwell and Napoleon), Carlyle investigates the mysterious qualities that elevate humans to cultural significance. By situating the text in the context of six essays by distinguished scholars that reevaluate both Carlyle's work and his ideas, David Sorensen and Brent Kinser argue that Carlyle's concept of heroism stresses the hero's spiritual dimension. In Carlyle's engagement with various heroic personalities, he dislodges religiosity from religion, myth from history, and truth from "quackery" as he describes the wondrous ways in which these "flowing light-fountains" unlock the heroic potential of ordinary human beings.
Little is known of how leadership actually happens in the Australasian context. Most of the theory and case study material in leadership is drawn from the US, where leadership examples are most frequently drawn from the business arena and focus largely on white males. This is not a true reflection of the diversity of Australasian society, nor of local and regional leadership. Leadership: Understanding its Global Impact is a fresh and original look at leadership from a local perspective--yet with a global theme. Throughout, profiles of leaders--drawn from around the world--are included to reflect the reality of the world in which today's students live.
In recent years, innovative schools have developed courses in what has been termed emotional literacy, emotional intelligence, or emotional competence. This volume evaluates these developments scientifically, pairing the perspectives of psychologists with those of educators who offer valuable commentary on the latest research. It is an authoritative study that describes the scientific basis for our knowledge about emotion as it relates specifically to children, the classroom environment, and emotional literacy. Key topics include: historical perspectives on emotional intelligence neurological bases for emotional development the development of social skills and childhood socialization of emotion. Experts in psychology and education have long viewed thinking and feeling as polar opposites reason on the one hand, and passion on the other. And emotion, often labeled as chaotic, haphazard, and immature, has not traditionally been seen as assisting reason. All that changed in 1990, when Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined the term emotional intelligence as a challenge to the belief that intelligence is not based on processing emotion-laden information. Salovey and Mayer defined emotional intelligence as the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use motivated scientists, educators, parents, and many others to consider the ways in which emotions themselves comprise an intelligent system. With this groundbreaking volume, invited contributors present cutting-edge research on emotions and emotional development in a manner useful to educators, psychologists, and anyone interested in the unfolding of emotions during childhood. In recent years, innovative schools have developed courses in “emotional literacy” that making; these classes teach children how to understand and manage their feelings and how to get along with one another. Many such programs have achieved national prominence, and preliminary scientific evaluations have shown promising results. Until recently, however, there has been little contact between educators developing these types of programs and psychologists studying the neurological underpinnings and development of human emotions. This unique book links theory and practice by juxtaposing scientific explanations of emotion with short commentaries from educators who elaborate on how these advances can be put to use in the classroom. Accessible and enlightening, Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence provides ample evidence about emotional intelligence as well as sound information on the potential efficacy of educational programs based on this idea.