Are you born with leadership skills or are they learned?

imgresSomeone asked this question the other day and I keep thinking about it.  It could be the same question about being an entrepreneur.  Are you born with those entrepreneurial skills or are they learned?

I have thought a lot about this.   I think about this when I talk to entrepreneurs.  Will this person be able to lead a team?  Are they self aware?

I do think that entrepreneurs can be given help to become better at what they do yet they must have leadership skills.  So what can be taught?

I am a big fan of CEO coaches.  They can help people learn to be better leaders even those who are built with those skill sets.  Entrepreneurs start with an idea, they lead people to believe in them, they get people to come and work for them and help them execute on the vision, hopefully money believes in the vision too and they come along for the ride and the growth.  Before you know it the company has grown up and there not 5 people but 20 and then 40 and then 50.  The skill sets needed don’t change they need to evolve.

I do think that leadership can be taught at some level.  Yet if you have young kids it is incredible how you can see the leaders emerge even at 5 years old.  You can see a bunch of other things too but all the all the skills you are born with are always there…they just sometimes need a little help coming out.

Comments (Archived):

  1. pixiedust8

    I actually disagree. I think both can be learned, although I think it depends how you define “leader.” (I think you can be a leader without being a CEO or even in the executive suite.) I wouldn’t have considered being an entrepreneur when I was younger, but circumstances, viewpoints, and skill sets change (not to mention, the economy).I have a young kid, and personally, I don’t think you can judge leadership at that age.

    1. Gotham Gal

      you definitely can not judge leadership by age but you can see those attributes at a young age.

      1. pixiedust8

        I guess you are more insightful than I am.

      2. pointsnfigures

        I think every kid can be a leader. Certainly, personalities are different. But, every kid can be taught the rudimentary skills of leadership. Once they have the “leadership musical instrument” in their hands, it’s up to them to learn how to use it and play it. There are certain core principles of leadership that ring true always-but how they are applied is different in different situations.

  2. Rohan

    This nature and nurture question is such a difficult one. I think of us having thresholds. We have a certain max limit on most things and can be truly exceptional in some things. Most things can be improved with coaching.. but only to a point.I think it might just be the same with leadership…

    1. Kevin Donovan

      I agree. And it can be any characteristic: leadership, beauty, athleticism, charisma, etc.

  3. Susan Rubinsky

    I agree that you can see kids who are natural leaders as kids. A group of Mom friends and I used to get together when our kids were growing up and we stayed together as a group faithfully for many years — from when our kids were babies through the teen years (now) — we used to have conversations when the kids were little and point our which kids on the playground had which traits, etc. You can also spot the bullies and other types fairly early on. Does nurturing help and/or hinder? Absolutely, but some kids have it and some don’t.

    1. Kevin Donovan

      Yes, indeed. I think I would say that some kids have less and some kids have more.Kids are still working out their primary mode for operating in the world and it is clear to see. Nice kids are really nice – active kids are really active – competitive kids are hyper competitive. It is hard for them to regulate themselves when they are young. As they get older, they learn new skills and can regulate better.I’d like to think we all know some bullies from our youth who turned out to be quite nice.

      1. Susan Rubinsky

        That is true. But I think parental and community involvement in helping shape those kids counts. I know too many people who turned into the adult version of negative traits that were obvious when they were kids because of permissive parenting, schooling, etc. The core personality traits exist and the world helps that person shape a life path that builds on those traits, either negatively or positively.

        1. Kevin Donovan

          Oh yes – parental and community involvement count big time. They shape the perspective of what is right/wrong/expected/possible.

  4. Kevin Donovan

    Isn’t leadership a characteristic? If so, I think we are born with a natural amount of it (nature) but can also be developed (nurture).Nature defines our limits for our characteristics. Nurture is what we do to develop our characteristics within our natural limits.As an example, a naturally intelligent person who does not develop their intelligence will stay towards the bottom end of their natural limit. But a naturally unintelligent person who works very hard at improving their intelligence will not be admitted to Harvard.

  5. AG

    I think a lot of it has to do with upbringing and confidence. If you were raised to be a secure, confident, outgoing, and open to taking risks, it seems to me you are much more suited to be a leader and or entrepreneur. Of course, people cal develop these attributes later in life, but it always amazes me just how formative those early years are.

    1. Sofia Papastamelos

      I agree, I think those tendencies that you develop in your early years definitely carry on throughout life. For those who do not grow up that way, sometimes it just takes the right mentor or cheerleader to encourage a higher level of leadership.

  6. Yinka!

    I think people may be born with leadership inclinations but leadership skills are learned. It is interesting to note how the same traits (e.g. boldness) can evolve into a positive personality trait like leadership or an equally negative one like bullying. It takes growing up in supportive environments with the right people to learn from (parents, teachers, bosses, etc with positive influence) for those instincts to be shaped constructively. Conversely, the same instincts under wrong “management” can regress or morph into negative traits.

    1. Guest

      An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

    2. Kevin Donovan

      An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

      1. Yinka!

        Apt analogy.

    3. Riki Franco

      I absolutely agree, leadership skills are shaped all the time when we face different situations but it’s not just the surroundings and the environment that affect which way we take it and the decisions we make eventually, it’s also ethics and integrity, a sense of responsibility and accountability, I think that without a moral conscience, leadership is worthless in the sense that it won’t take society forward

  7. lisa hickey

    I was the kid who watched in awe as other kids became leaders. I had no intuitive sense of how worked, but I did notice that I was not one of them. And throughout my career—no one ever once stopped to teach me how. Which just meant that by the time I realized it was a necessary skill—and one that I had to own—I had to work harder at it and push myself to internalize what needed to be done so it became natural and something I enjoyed doing. It was similar to public speaking—I used to be terrified—terrified—of speaking before a crowd, but once I got good at it, speaking in front of large crowds became the most fun thing in the world. And that is how I feel about leading. When you are good at it, the rewards are immeasurable. There is just such joy in doing it well.And so, when I ran a company, I decided no one who worked for me would ever not know how to lead. We have weekly conference calls aptly named “leadership calls”, which are half business agenda items and half leadership coaching sessions. Anyone in a management role gets trained in the difference between managing and leading—and I’ve found most people don’t know the difference.But the thing I’ve actually found most effective for developing leaders is to simply remember to use 5 words. The words are “Thank you for your leadership.” And I use those words every time I catch someone doing a good job leading. It doesn’t matter if it is in front of a group of 10 other employees or if it is a reply to a single email. If you have done it well, it gets noted and commented on. And I’m always surprised to note how the first time I say it, the person almost visibly startles. It’s as if no one had ever told them that what they were doing was leading, and that leadership was one of the most valuable skills they could own.

    1. AG

      Curious what you think you were able to learn in order to become a leader and what you teach on those calls.

      1. lisa hickey

        Thank for asking. Sorry this is so long—but there is no one “magic bullet.” People often think of leadership as “the stirring speech”, “the product breakthrough”, or “the brilliant strategic plan.” And yes, it is all of that. But I have found leadership to be much more mundane and day-do-day than that. In fact—it is the day-to-day practice of leadership that gets you to those innovative breakthroughs.Here is what I have learned:1) How to Actually Gain ConfidenceHere was a piece of advice I got on confidence before I was a good leader that turned my life around. The advice: “If you want self-esteem, go out and do something estimable.”If there is nothing else you internalize as a leader, internalize this. It’s not a question of self-talk, zen, or inner strength. It’s that you have to go out and take actions that are worthy of self-esteem.The value as an entrepreneur of having an investor-backed business is more than just the money. It’s being held accountable for results. And what happens when you realize you have the ability to get good results month after month, year after year? You gain confidence.Board Meetings help develop leadership skills because, as a CEO you are held accountable for your results in a very structured way. I love them for that reason—because I always come out of them with increased confidence in my ability to lead.There is nothing like the ability to get results to give you confidence. You can’t lead without the ability to get results.2) “Are you measuring the right things?”I have never heard of leadership described as being able to measure the right things, but to me, that is so critical.After all, what are results? Incremental improvements in things you can measure. If you are not getting results in the things that really matter, you are not leading.I think it was on Fred’s blog where I said that one of the best skills I ever learned was “how to turn a spreadsheet into a to-do list”.A deep understanding of the numbers gives you the information you need to stop doing the things that don’t work and focus on the things that do. That’s how you know what actions you need to focus on—How else do you even start to be a leader unless you know which actions are going to be the most effective?But don’t stop with the actions you take. How do you inspire your teams to care about the numbers that are most important? How do you turn numbers into actions and actions back into results and have those team members be so enthusiastic about reporting back to you on the numbers that they can’t wait til the next meeting to show you results? That’s leadership.If you don’t start by measuring the right things, your employees are going to be doing things that aren’t effective and are not going to be able to take actions that lead to their success. If you don’t have employees who know how to be successful, you don’t have a business.3) “Give people the information they need to do their jobs.” Actually, that is being a good manager. Give people the information they need to succeed at their job in extraordinary ways that neither of you could have anticipated—that is leadership. (See #2 above as to how you discover what that information is.)4) Be ClearClarity takes daily practice.Clarity comes from really truly wanting the other person to understand.You can’t make the jump from spreadsheets to actions without being clear. You can’t lead without clarity.Never hire someone who is not 100% clear in the interview—or who can’t clarify a point you don’t understand.5) DirectnessWhen you give the people the information they need to do their job with absolute clarity, you are being direct.Here is what I have written about directness:“I learned about the value of being direct in communications from–go figure–directors. Commercial television production directors, to be exact. There’s a reason they are called directors–they direct people. And when they speak, boy are they direct. ‘Get me a 6-foot stepladder, a 50 watt halogen lamp, and place it in socket number four.’ There is an implied ‘now’ at the end of every sentence. It always takes only one very quick production assistant to change a light bulb.”As a leader, you need to learn how to be direct—you need to embrace it, internalize it and use it daily. Imagine an airline pilot who couldn’t be direct to his co-pilot. That is actually how plane crashes occur. Systematized breakdowns of communication—an average of 7 for each crash—lead to catastrophic results. From not being direct enough. I would bet you would find similar dynamics in businesses that fail.6) Learn How to Systematize EnthusiasmHere’s a real life example that was from today’s call. There was an article in yesterday’s NY Times about the Skimm. One small part of it said: “Perhaps most strikingly, theSkimm has now drawn what Ms. Weisberg and Ms. Zakin call their “Skimm’bassador” program: enthusiastic subscribers who actively promote the service to their friends. Six months ago, the company counted 80 such representatives; now, the two founders said, the program’s participants number in the thousands.”We do this at our company – we call it something different. But on today’s call, we talked very specifically about how we can get the enthusiasm for what we are doing with our mission to continue to roll out in very systematized ways. We laughed—the enthusiasm on the call itself was palpable. How can we get others just as enthusiastic using a systems approach? If we could only have these conference calls with everyone in the world!When you are an entrepreneur going around from investor to investor, pitching your idea, you are *replicating* your enthusiasm. When you are getting your enthusiasm to go beyond the person you are talking to and onto the next person – you are systematizing your enthusiasm. It’s difficult to go from a one or two or three person entrepreneurial team to a big business without being able to systematize your enthusiasm.You don’t “inspire confidence” in people, that is a misnomer. Nor do you develop long-term enthusiasm with a single pep talk. You give people the tools they need to get results – which is how they develop mastery and become confident. See point number one. Once they can confidently get results, it’s much easier for your core team to be able to lead other teams of people with clarity and directness. Once that happens—it’s easier to get everyone to be enthusiastic. Because everyone is succeeding. And if you can get people to sustain their enthusiasm for getting results over the really long haul, guess what? That’s called growth. Increasingly large teams that get increasing results over a long period of time—where momentum and results are sustainable and scalable—that’s the type of business I want to lead. But it’s up to me to build a structure and systems that makes that happen in the first place. That’s when the leadership part looks easy.7) Care deeply about the success of everyone who works for you.If I’m worried about my leadership skills, I’m usually asking the wrong question. The question should be – are the people working for me succeeding at what they do? Are they getting the results we as a team need? Is everyone clear on what success looks like and how to get there? If they are, I’m a good leader. If they are not – then figuring out more ways to help the people who work for me succeed will turn me into a better leader.

        1. Gotham Gal

          this is great.

        2. karen_e

          I like looking at #2 and #5 together. When you know you’re measuring the right things, it’s easier to be direct in your communications.

          1. lisa hickey

            Great insight, Karen. Thanks. That actually connected some dots for me. Because what gives you confidence in the absence of results? Knowing you’re measuring the right things. You have confidence in your decision-making—not just from actual results, but from your ability to know what you need to do to get *future* results. You are then clear, confident and direct because you are able to see exactly what needs to be done and you are able communicate that to your team day in and day out.

    2. pointsnfigures

      one sign of a great leader-they are willing to teach others around them to lead. They aren’t threatened by them-and delegate effectively. Sounds exactly like what you are doing.

  8. LE

    Much of this has to do with the “presence” (which can perhaps only partly be “taught”) that someone has and/or even how serious and believable they seem to others. No question that some people are born with more of a degree of being able to seem more legitimate than they are. Point being is that the same words coming out of 2 different people’s mouths will be taken differently even by the tone of their voice. You find this is all professions (medicine would be one). [1]Pitch of voice and physical appearance (down to micro expressions) count more than words in many cases. (I’m not claiming to have a great physical appearance I’m on the short side but I come across as very serious which helped me right out of college in my first business managing employees no question about that. Also helps with kids for that matter. Like the no nonsense teacher.)Separately when I negotiate over the phone (or in person) my style, and how I typically behave, is as if I’m an actor playing a role in order to achieve whatever objective that I have. This can be taught obviously. I could definitely teach someone to do this type of “method” negotiation. (Like method acting..)[1] I remember a case, and this is typical and had happened many times, where a customer service person that worked for me was on the phone with someone. The customer didn’t like the answer. I got on the phone and said the exact same thing. The customer was satisfied. Same words, but I sounded more authoritative and sure of myself. Likewise it was extremely rare that I ever get questioned on the phone when I say something (in that context I mean). So it’s not someone simply not liking the answer and wanting some kind of appeal to a higher authority. (Non scientific observation).

  9. pointsnfigures

    Curious about your CEO Coach comment. Personally, I have had good and bad experiences with coaches. What characteristics do you look for in a good coach and what questions do you ask them to see if they have what it takes?

    1. Gotham Gal

      you have to connect with them. everyone has a different perspective on it.i believe it is the baggage that you carry that holds you back from being a great leader not so much how to get a leader. others believe that you need someone to help you manage better

      1. pointsnfigures

        But on a CEO coach, should they have run a business successfully before? To be clear, I see a lot of people that are doing the “CEO coach gig”-especially with startups. It’s not clear to me if it’s worth it for the startup or not. My personal experience has been with two of them and they both sucked. (BTW, it wasn’t anyone that has commented on this blog or any other blog)

        1. Gotham Gal

          Sometimes a coach is just a coach.

        2. JLM

          .As a trade school Zoomie, could you learn to fly an airplane from someone who had never flown one?JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          1. pointsnfigures

            nope. that’s why I always ask potential coaches if they ran a business or not-then what kind of a business.

  10. WA

    Some of tne most effective leadership examples I have seen, schooled with and worked with are those who emerged from within the organization. Courageous followers at first, if you will. They connect with their team and peers and evoke a natural inclination for others to gravitate to them. An informal socio emotional leadership quality is there gift. They are watchers and learners and teachers all wrapped up into one. Peer pullers. They do not necessarily aspire to lead at all and in sharing the vision they believe in become the execution example others respect and buy into. From the field to offices to class rooms it is amazing to watch the hybrid nature of these natural learners to leaders. Great topic always.

  11. JLM

    .Flying an airplane is very simple — remember when you make a turn in the sky, you have the entire sky in which to do it. Do the same thing in a car and you have to stay in your lane. Much more difficult really.Nobody was ever born knowing how to fly a plane. Some, given the right training, have discovered an innate ability to fly an airplane better than others but only after they were taught to fly.Leadership is the same thing. Nobody was ever born knowing how to lead. Many have that same innate ability to lead better once they have been sheep dipped into the art and science of leadership.The military is an interesting leadership laboratory as it starts with a clear understanding of what leadership is, how it looks in application and how it is to be taught. In business, much of this infrastructure is missing. I cannot remember a single business school teaching leadership — the art and science — at the undergrad level (other than the military academies) or in an MBA program.There is a bit of teaching surrounding entrepreneurship but not leadership.With the right training, anyone can become a leader. In much the same way that character is only really revealed by the friction of life which exposes it, leadership requires training, experimentation and a commitment to self improvement.Having been a CEO for over 33 years, I can say with great pride that every promising young subordinate I ever trained or worked with became a leader. In some small part because of my effort to help them to find it within themselves but more importantly because of their realization that it was in there somewhere. I was just the instrument that created the friction that exposed what was within them.The principles of leadership — like the immutable laws of aerodynamics — are often simply process driven. Want to be a good leader at the Board level? Conduct a Anonymous Board Survey. This is just a tool to be acquired and used like buying a hammer at Home Depot (don’t use your credit card?).As a CEO coach, I provide CEOs with a framework in which to approach the challenge of leadership informed by years of having been a CEO. I also provide exemplars of processes, documents and graphics which are shortcuts to being able to deliver leadership. Why re-invent the wheel? At the US Army Ranger School, the toughest military training and more difficult than combat, you learn the Five Paragraph Field Order which guides every patrol order you will issue for the rest of your life. It works. It is process.Learning to lead is no more complicated than learning to fly an airplane or learning to dance. It takes some commitment and the realization that you will get better with time if you put in the effort. It takes a lot of thinking and a bit of courage which just keeps getting easier with the passage of time.Anyone can become a leader. Not everyone can become Dwight David Eisenhower.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. lisa hickey

      Thanks for this. I have long been fascinated by the link between flying a plane andrunning a company. I have written before how Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, has a fascinating look at the causes of plane crashes. What he tells us is that plane crashes rarely happen the way they do in movies, with the explosion of an engine part with a fiery bang. Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of “an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.” Those difficulties, which could have been corrected at any time, are then compounded by pilot errors–one after another. The typical plane crash, says Gladwell, involves seven consecutive human errors. And those errors are invariably errors of teamwork, communication and a lack of clarity and directness.One of the things that an investor told me early on in those wild days of start-up growth was “Most businesses fail because the CEO has a fundamental denial of the numbers.”That has stuck with me and informed a lot of how I operate. It would be like a pilot not paying attention to the altitude reading.

      1. JLM

        .I love that book. It is very interesting particularly the notion as to the amount of time to create “mastery.” This idea had been eluding me and he put it into clear focus.The reference to plane crashes is right on the money. Every single accident is the result of a CHAIN of errors or accidents. The challenge for a pilot is to break the chain. Every pilot has a story in which exactly this has happened to him.There are OLD pilots.There are BOLD pilots.There are no OLD BOLD pilots.Sooner or later it catches up with you.CEOs not believing what interferes with their vision is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness.I subscribe to the spice theory of life — sometimes a pinch enhances the flavor and always a handful ruins the flavor of things. It’s all in the proportions.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredcar.clom

  12. marko calvo-cruz

    The question isn’t “Are you born with leadership skills?”, it’s “At what age do kids stop believing they can be leaders?”

    1. Gotham Gal

      Great question.

  13. Erin

    The most beautiful definition of leadership I’ve ever heard was this October at a mindfulness retreat: “A leader is just the first one to become present” (Russ Hudson). I thought that was so empowering.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Love that