Leadership is often confused with management, but it is more about building relationships with other people and striving toward a larger goal than it is about focusing on the day-to-day execution of that goal. But are leaders born or made? There’s disagreement about this, starting with the emergence of the great man theory in the 19th century. This position purported that great leaders are born with certain traits and that they emerge in times of great need.
More recent theories, such as the contingency theory and behavioral theories, have focused more on situational or behavioral factors that determine a good leader. While there’s not total agreement on this, it’s safe to say that good leaders think in certain ways and are able to make mindset shifts to maintain or develop in their roles as leaders. In this article, we look at what makes a good leader and how leaders can develop over time.
Traits of a leader
So what makes a good leader? There are many answers to this question, but a few qualities surface over and over again.
A good leader has strong listening skills and knows how to weigh the input of others. At the same time, they are confident in trusting themselves to make hard decisions—they can balance intuition with information and make calls under pressure. Many strong leaders have what some would describe as inherent confidence or charisma. While it’s easy to think of charisma as an inborn trait, it is based on excellent communication and the ability to connect to listeners on an emotional level, which are skills that can be learned.
Leadership is about people, not tasks, so good leaders know their own as well as others’ strengths and weaknesses. They understand that delegating tasks helps them be more effective and acknowledge their own limitations.
Leaders must have good time management skills to stay focused on the larger goals without getting lost in the details. And what’s more, they are inclined to focus on the bigger picture—leaders are the ones who drive a team toward a vision, rather than simply checking things off a list (though many agree that leaders love lists as well).
Leadership development over the lifespan
Let’s assume strong leadership is a combination of nature, nurture, and situational factors. By that I mean that some qualities are inherent, some leadership skills can be learned, and there’s more than one way to be a good leader—different circumstances may call for different forms of leadership.
Temperament, perhaps the first determining factor in what makes a good leader, is present from birth and generally stable over an individual’s lifespan. Temperament is part of what determines behavior, and these traits may contribute to good leadership, For instance, one trait, persistence, can certainly be connected to leadership skill: the willingness to work hard to figure out challenges is essential in good leadership. While children may be born with high or low persistence, parents can help teach this skill through modeling and providing plenty of opportunities for their kids to practice.
Environment can influence how temperament emerges and teach children skills they aren’t inclined toward from birth. Even the way that new parents engage with a newborn can greatly affect their baby’s brain development. For instance, engaging in activities that help babies discover new aspects about themselves and their worlds at an early age may help them develop curiosity. Throughout childhood, parents can engage with their children in ways that model good listening skills and give them opportunities to try, fail, and learn from different tasks.
In high school, opportunities for leadership start to become more available. As teens are developing a deeper understanding of their relationship with the world, parents can model good communication and warmth toward others to encourage their teens to strive for understanding, rather than dominating, the people in their lives (remember that an essential leadership skill is understanding the people on your team). Participation in athletics, high school newspapers, or theater can help teens understand teamwork and provide opportunities for those who may be inclined toward leadership to take on new roles and hone their emerging skills.
How to support fledgling leaders
If you want to identify potential future leaders in your workplace, what should you look for? Start by noticing employees who are highly engaged—who ask good questions in meetings, strive to understand roles outside their own, and are interested in accomplishing the bigger goals, not just what’s on their task list. These members of your team may well be future leaders in the company. Also important in considering who will make a good leader are communication skills, the ability to recover quickly from failure, and drive to continue learning and improving.
When you’ve established who is leadership material (or if you’re not sure and need some help), you can go a step further by using a leadership assessment tool to evaluate your employees. Don’t rely only on the results of these to determine who to mentor, but consider these results in the context of someone’s overall behavior and performance. And on the topic of performance, remember that potential is as important as a track record. There are situational factors that influence the emergence of leaders. The intrinsic qualities of a drive to succeed, motivation to learn, and an ability to influence the direction of a company may not show up in performance until there’s an opportunity.
So is a great leader born or made?
It’s a combination. Scientists guess that, based on twin studies, “leadership is about two-thirds ‘made’ and one-third ‘born.’” A child with the potential for great leadership may be born with some important traits and never step into the role because of environmental factors. Or an average child with the right temperament may work very hard to develop the skills necessary for leadership and find such a role for themselves.
If you’re an entrepreneurial parent, there are many things you can do with your kids to help instill leadership traits. As a business owner, look for qualities like excellent communication, big-picture thinking, and high engagement and mentor those employees who show good potential for future leadership roles.
Hilary Thompson is a freelance writer, small business owner, and mother of two. With a background in content strategy, journalism, and business management, she loves to explore solutions for success, in all areas: health, business, parenting, life.