Oswald Letter

Leaders—Are They Born or Made?

This edition of The Oswald Letter is a guest post from Elizabeth Petersen, Project Director for Simplify Compliance.

Source: LeeAnnWhite / iStock / Getty

I was a smash-’em-up, full-contact sports kid, so when my son decided to join a swim team, I found myself in uncharted athletic territory.

As I sat watching the team practice the other day, it struck me how different the kids are. Some swimmers’ strokes looked effortless, and they seemed to glide through the pool. Others had to focus on the mechanics of every part of the stroke, and the result looked labored and strained.

Curious about how different swimmers develop, I texted my swim-mom sister: Why do some kids make freestyle look as easy as breathing, while some kids seem to struggle connecting the various components of the stroke? Do all swimmers, with the right coaching, develop the same easy, natural style?

My sister responded that some kids instinctively know what to do in the water. Most of these types of athletes quickly become excellent competitive swimmers at relatively young ages. For other children, it could take years to master the sport. These kids need to work harder and often enjoy less immediate success than their peers.

But, she noticed, the kids to whom swimming came naturally could hit a wall, especially as competition becomes stiffer and dedication and personal drive become more of a success factor. She also noted that children who need to really work through each stroke often develop a steeliness and resilience—and a proud passion—and sometimes are able to win against the naturals as they get older.

This all got me thinking about leadership and the age-old “born or learned” question.

I had a former boss who insisted that leadership was an innate trait and not a skill that could be learned—in other words, you either had it or you didn’t.

But, by all accounts, the issue is far more complex. This article from Psychology Today contends that leaders are “one-third born and two-thirds made,” pointing out that leaders tend to be naturally extroverted, inclined to take risks, and compassionate—but complimentary behaviors and skills can be honed with experience.

We all know there is no single definition of a great leader (Steve Jobs, for instance, produced undeniably excellent business results, although there are conflicting stories about how much of a “people person” he was).

Erika Anderson, in an article she wrote for Forbes, believes that truly special leaders are able to blend innate abilities with learned skills—skills, she argues, that can be learned only when a leader is self-aware and practices self-criticism and introspection, as objectively as possible.

Personally, I think leaders are born—but great leaders are made by combining natural abilities with lessons learned from experience (failure, in particular) and coaching.

So, what do you all think? Can ANYONE be a great leader, given the right environment and experiences? Or are leaders simply born into greatness?

Elizabeth Petersen is the executive vice president of revenue and strategy at Simplify Compliance. Before her current role, Elizabeth oversaw Simplify Compliance’s healthcare division, HCPro. She also has held roles in HCPro’s sales, product management, and content development departments. Before joining HCPro, she held editorial positions at JBLearning and CCI Communications. Elizabeth lives in the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son and is passionately interested in corporate culture, innovation, women’s leadership, and caffeine.

E-mail Elizabeth your thoughts, questions, comments, and ideas, or connect with her via LinkedIn.