Nature vs Nurture in Leadership

I was struck by this quote from William James -

“If you want a quality, act as if you already had it“.

So, is leadership innate and immutable or can it be learnt and made to measure? What follows is a condensation of a series of posts by leadership experts discussing this question on The Leadership Trust LinkedIn Group. There are some real gems here.

There is so much more to this question so please share your opinions.

Moses Simuyemba Executive & Life Coaching (Lusaka, Zambia)

I think it’s a bit of both really. Leadership can be innate – some people are just gifted with the right qualities and temperament. Others have to learn it. But ultimately whether gifted with it or not both groups have to develop and nurture it. If we follow personality profiling tools such as DiSC we find that there are certain personality traits that dictate whether someone can make a good leader or not. Which leads me to the conclusion that by and large leadership is a personality issue. But…even personality can be changed or improved through deliberate effort.

Holly Latty-Mann The Leadership Trust (Raleigh, USA)

I have always maintained that great leaders are made rather than born, however, I also agree with Moses that some people are gifted more so than others. But whether or not they act on their gifts may be more a product of their environment. Hence, the Horatio Alger effect!

Glenn Turner LDG Consulting Inc.(Chicago, USA)

I have to agree with Holly and Moses but I strongly believe that leadership is a skill that can and must be developed in order for a person to grow into a great leader. I do not believe that great leaders are born. Great leaders work on the skills that are necessary to become great in a continual manner.

Holly Latty-Mann Glenn, very true. If great leaders were born, I’d be out of business! As General George C. Marshall said, “The study of leadership is a fundamental aspect of a leader’s duty.”

Gary Coulton Coulton Leadership Consulting – Thank goodness we are not all slaves to our genes! I am very taken by the tenets of Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game. The concept of increasing performance from the combination of learning and enjoyment is potent.

Perhaps one way to nurture future leaders is to assist them to learn how to sense what is happening inside them and also in those that they lead. To sense what is happening in situations when their attempts to lead are successful and when they are not. After all to me leadership is as much about emotion as it is about skills and intellect.

Lorraine Arams  Wize Time (Vancouver, Canada)

Leadership, I think, combines many aspects of development. However, it is only through experience that someone can become a really good leader. In our society, we have lost respect for experience – it is the best teacher and the best way to hone the qualities necessary. What is contained in a book is only the beginning. Applying the principles is quite another. There is no “one size fits all” in leadership either. What makes someone a great leader in one environment can have the reverse effect in another.

Holly Latty-Mann Gary and Lorraine, together the two of you offer some fundamentals to highly effective leadership (personal development) programs. Gary, you mention emotions, and research is clear that change and decision-making can not take place without an accompanying emotion (hey, finally a positive role for fear!). Lorraine, you suggested if leadership programs do not personalize to each participant and do not have experiential components of substance, permanent positive change is not going to happen. A “cookie-cutter” program is no better than a book, so application via experiencing is paramount for growth. Great discussion everyone has created here! Thank you.

Gary Coulton This is really generating some great ideas! I guess the challenge for leadership coaches is to design a delivery strategy that centres on the needs of the client yet marries well with a business strategy that is sufficiently income generating to give us coaches a decent standard of living. I am sure that we all feel that as coaches we gain the most human reward from working face to face with our clients. However, unless you are working in the $20k/hour bracket it can be a very hard way to make a living. At the other end of the business strategy scale are what might be called the “industrial” offerings based more on large volume teleconferences etc. Having been a client on a few, the direct contact at depth dealing with the coachee’s fundamental issues is lost. It sometimes results in a one-sided diatribe based on the coache’s personal beliefs. So, how do we maintain as much depth as possible but bring it to a large enough audience to create strong financials for our businesses? One way as exemplified by Ali Brown and others including Steven Sonsino’s Tomorrow Leaders Institute is to have a graded membership structure with increasing levels of personal involvement as members move up the value chain. I think this approach has much going for it and it is clear that the business becomes strong and the clients seem very happy.

Now it may seem that we have strayed from my original question but not really. I see my myself as a leader of people wishing to become leaders and the simple fact that I started this Nature vs Nurture thread is that I too need constant nurturing! I am just finishing reading a great book by Haslam, Reicher and Platow called “The New Psychology of Leadership (Psychology Press) and he coins a name for leaders as “Entrepreneurs of identity”. I think this is insightful and inspiring.

Holly Latty-Mann (1) Coaches – executive, life, and business – this discussion begs for your input, as it speaks not only to the value you bring others, but also how to enhance your livelihood in so doing. Gary presents several issues here. My first thought in response to the various topics here center on how coaches could “volume” coach creating opportunities to coach individuals who made up a segment of that large group in question.

(2) Members who are not in the coaching/leadership industry: Care to advise us based on your own unique experience

Gary Coulton I have been thinking about all that you have said and it got me thinking about the original quote I first posted. William James said “act as if you already had it”. So, is it possible that we as professional leadership guides can provide the highest quality training only so that someone can “act” as if they had leadership quality but they really cannot lead effectively? That seems self evident in some cases and is a reflection of the view that nurture cannot answer all questions. I am also a sports coach teaching the correct paddling technique for racing kayakers. What I have learnt is that I can get someone to adopt what looks like the perfect technique but they have no idea as to whether or not it is effective on the water. I now teach less and less of the mechanics and more about how to feel and sense when what they are doing is moving them through the water more efficiently. I am convinced that the same is true for any kind of training including leadership. What then is the extra missing element? For me it is not so much about nature, as most of us have pretty much similar genetic and hence biological capability. I am convinced it is more about being able to tap into our own personal life experiences and to have deep insight and awareness of how they have moulded our behaviors in the moment. The potent combination of insight, feeling and technical skills is then life changing for those that are led and for the leader.

Peter Blackburn – West Midlands Police, UK. – My observation is that to whatever extent a leader works on their leadership qualities the most common differentials effecting how their performance is perceived are motive & state of mind. Motive … To often self- interest and selfish ambition (which can be energy to be channeled to positive effect) influences state of mind negatively. Is a leader weighing up the right thing to do to achieve the organisations purpose, valuing people’s contributions, empowering them and leading the way? Or is fear and risk aversion the primary driver…. Continually making decisions to avoid positively doing the right things due to fear of… what if it goes wrong? The majority of leaders sadly appear to feature in the risk aversion/fear category…..

Gary Coulton Peter, I guess what I am taking from what you say is that unless the leader acts proteotypically for the group then they are perceived by the group as not part of them. It has been shown many times that a group does not work well for a leader who they perceive as being from outside the group and out for their own private ends. Maybe then the leader needs to be aware that their progress and the achievement of their vision can only occur if they belong to the group and are part of the creation of a team vision. Then the team members engage their hearts as well as their heads.

Peter Blackburn I am building more on your last observations where you conclude insight, feeling and technical skills are a potent combination. Where behaviour is contrived, & lifted from a text book or a coaching session many people see through this. With any leader the biggest question to those around him or her is what is driving/’motivating them? Do they have a value based approach to getting the best out of others or do they act like they have those values until the circumstances are such that their true self is forced to the surface. Emotional intelligence, and sound value based decision making remain the foundations of good leadership. Whether people perceive a leader as part of their group or from outside i think the same considerations apply…although perceptions of different organisational cultures can feature heavily in the early stages of a new leader.

Anthony Oliver Performance Precinct (Melbourne, Australia)

In my experience, leaders and people are often a product of their environment, experiences and adapted learning. People and therefore leaders will have a vastly different list of experiences that they can tap into. This therefore poses the question, can we manufacture and deliver learning and experiences to develop leaders to their full potential?

Peter Blackburn I agree. As long as an individual is open to learn more about themselves & lead with the right motives, then opportunity stands at their door. Active listening is a pivotal skill which can assist anyone significantly. This is Often used in life threatening crises however is key to many people leading more effectively.

Gary Coulton Anthony, I would take your idea that everyone is “a product of their environment, experiences and adapted learning”, one step further. Too many of us live our lives without really understanding how our very early experiences colour our behaviour well into adult life. Maybe leadership, as Peter implies, is about grappling to understand our innermost behaviour patterns, their origins and how we interact with others. From that foundation we can understand ourselves without judgement and also tap into our emotional intelligence to recognise the varied emotions, behaviours and motivations of others. Once we operate at this level it is much easier to be open, honest and trustworthy, all highly valued characteristics of leaders. My question now is how do we support leaders and perhaps more importantly aspiring leaders, to engage in this process? How can we show how such a personal evaluation can affect not only their emotional wellbeing but their leadership performance and yes the financial return on investment?

Glenn Turner Anthony: Great post. I do believe we can manufacture and deliver learning by instituting a continual learning and development program within an organization. We are all limited by what we do not know yet our ability to learn is unlimited! Combine this with the ability to listen to others with a clear and open mind. Gary raises a great issue as to how does an organization do this with their current leadership team and with aspiring young leaders. I suggest that the answer is a strategic leadership development program.

Lorraine Arams I know the group can be changed. If the “group” has worked under one “type” of leadership and the new leader is coming in with a totally different approach, the new leader does not have to “belong to the group”. The new leader can change the “group”. For instance, if the group has been used to an autocratic top down management style and yet a leader comes in with a true team-based style,  the leader can implement change. It takes time and a lot of work but it can be done – it depends whether the “group” is sold on the benefits to them or not – there always has to be something in it for them – like any other “customer”. I’ve done it under some very difficult circumstances -the results were worth it!

Lorraine Arams Books and programs, by nature, I believe, need to be generalized and offer “possibilities”. These possibilities are important to any leader because on-going “change” is critical to keeping the environment fresh and growing and exposure to new thoughts and ideas open doors. Education and experience are the perfect marriage, However, lately, it would seem that only education is valued – letters after a name doesn’t necessarily mean they know what they are doing. I’ve worked with MBAs who didn’t have a clue how to understand a budget but they approved the operational budgets nonetheless. Frankly, I was stunned! Yet, I’ve also worked with leaders who couldn’t quantify their education with initials after their names but knew exactly how to read and understand figures and manage accordingly.

The mistake, I think, is the search for the panacea – the book, the program or the person with all the answers – there is no such thing. I seek out books and programs written and delivered by people who have had extensive experience and success on the topic. Then, I pick and choose various components which may be beneficial to my work.

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About Gary R Coulton

I use my 30 years experience as teacher, learner, facilitator, mentor, trainer, manager, leader, biomedical researcher, intrapreneur , executive and sports coach to create “teams for change and re-invention”. I have developed the concept of “Adaptive Intelligence” to support individuals, teams and organisations in their quest to understand and take advantage of the “Change Paradox”. I have created a range of innovative courses and training systems including “How to achieve like an elite thinking/business athlete”. I live in North Surrey, UK with my Wife and Daughter and enjoy coaching Kayak paddling technique, travelling and learning a new thing each day.
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3 Responses to Nature vs Nurture in Leadership

  1. Hi Jetsin,
    Your opinions may be humble but then the definition of humble is, “Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful”.
    Stay humble it will ground you for life.

  2. Dear All,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my offering and especially for the wonderfully encouraging comment you left. If you subscribe to this Blog you will get regular notification by e-mail of new posts that might interest you. There is no charge for subscribing to my blog and I will not be trying to sell any of my leadership or coaching products of service via this Blog.
    Best wishes from

    Gary Coulton
    The Leadership Fox

  3. Dear Patsy
    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my offering and especially for the wonderfully encouraging comment you left. If you subscribe to this Blog you will get regular notification by e-mail of new posts that might interest you. There is no charge for subscribing to my blog and I will not be trying to sell any of my leadership or coaching products of service via this Blog.
    Best wishes from

    Gary Coulton
    The Leadership Fox

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