Nature Nurture
Are Leaders Born or Made?

The so called "nature nurture" debate consumed many psychologists - and others in the human sciences - for a good part of the twentieth century. Some argued that our intelliegnce and personality, or behavioural traits, were fixed by nature - in the genes. Others argued that they were determined by our environment and upbringing.


For us, this issue is central to the question of whether leaders are born or made.

For social policy the answer to the question was critical. Depending on which had the biggest influence - nature or nurture - educational and welfare budgets & resources would be applied differently.

Political thinkers were similarly interested in the nature nurture issue. Liberals and socialists tended to believe that (and wanted) nurture to prevail. Fascists favoured nature to do so!

If scientific evidence could be found to support one or the other, major social and political decisions would follow.

Research and evidence

Some researchers looked to physical traits (eg, height, weight) and suggested that personality and behaviour would be influenced in a similar manner. But personality is very different to a physical attribute.

Large scale and long term studies of separated twins were conducted to try to get to the bottom of the issue. Would genetically identical twins develop the same level of intelligence and the same personality profile if they were brought up in different environments?

Quite apart from the ethical issues, some of these studies were discredited when it was found that some data was falsified.

The stakes were getting higher.

Current views

Today, most experts would now say that the question is a "false dichotomy", that both nature and nurture play a role.

According to this idea, nature may pre-dispose a person to develop a particular set of behaviours, level of intelligence and personality profile. But the upbringing and environment can either bring this out, extend it or block it.

In other words, you can not separate the two influences - they interact.

What does this mean for learning to be a leader?

There are clearly some people who seem to have qualities that pe-dispose them to be a leader. Qualities such as:

  • Charisma.
  • Extraversion.
  • Rapport with others.
  • Creativity.

While such qualities might appear to be "natural", and indeed may or may not have some basis in genetics, what is really important is that they all have to be honed, developed, enhanced, fine-tuned, applied and adapted if someone is to be a real leader. This is where learning plays a real part. And skills can only be learned - they can never come with the genes!

Even if you don't have so-called "in-built" leadership qualities, you have to learn the skills to be a leader. And one may help balance, or make up for, the other.

The bottom line

All the leaders that you and I admire have made conscious decisions to

- learn the skills,
- develop the qualities and
- practice the actions

that have made them recognised and followed by others.

To be frank, not many people spend much time on the nature nurture debate anymore!

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