One of the most commonly-posed questions about leadership is, “Are leaders born or made?” We’ve all heard the phrase “born leader” and probably have an image of that person in our minds – someone outgoing and charismatic, who seems to naturally end up “in charge.” Today, however, most experts agree that while some leadership traits are innate, on the whole, more leaders are “made” than “born.”
The “Made Leader”
A recent article in Forbes quoted researchers who determined that while leaders’ talents may be partly genetic, most are developed through hard work and persistence. One study from The Leadership Quarterly quantified the issue, estimating that leadership is 24% genetic and 76% learned. Another study from the University of Illinois set the ratio at 30/70, with the majority once again in the “made leader” camp.
“Most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders,” wrote the Forbes author. The experts at Psychology Today elaborate further: “The job of leading an organization, a military unit, or a nation, and doing so effectively, is fantastically complex. To expect that a person would be born with all of the tools needed to lead just doesn't make sense.”
Spotting Leadership Potential
Most educators probably don’t need these experts to answer the born-vs.-made question – we know the answer in our hearts. Our job as educators, in fact, is to help develop core strengths in our students, as we guide them on the path to success. Obtaining that success, whether as a leader or a contributor, is a process, requiring experience, knowledge and positive role models.
Each child that we teach and mentor possesses unique talent and potential. To help identify leadership potential specifically, look for students with these traits:
- Boldness and independence – able to embrace risk; less concerned about conforming
- Desire to be challenged; goal-oriented
- Intelligence – especially “street smarts” – an innate grasp of social situations
- Empathy and sensitivity to the needs of others
- The ability to take charge, assume responsibility and motivate others
- Strong communication skills
- Creative problem-solving abilities
- Positive self-image
A study quoted on the Educational Research website says, “school children who exhibited social leadership qualities had internalized a positive self-perception, felt confident in social situations, and had a secure and pro-social orientation toward peers and friends.” Teachers developing the leadership potential in their students should strive to enhance their student’s self-perception, and create a learning environment in which students feel secure. They should encourage students to interact and collaborate; group projects, for example, present perfect opportunities for emerging young leaders.
Empowering students to exercise creative and independent thinking also helps develop leadership abilities. Experiential learning projects, in which students apply self-initiative and self-assessment, as well as hands-on activity, provide fertile ground for creative thinking and many of the other skills listed above. You’ll find several articles on experiential learning in Envision’s Educators’ Resource Center.
Channeling Energy and Assertiveness
Most educators can easily call to mind a student who taxed their patience with their assertive, or may we say boisterous personalities. However, if we study the great leaders of history and today, we see many a leader with a knack for speaking out of turn occasionally.
A study presented in Tesco’s “Baby Club” states that loud and fearless children appear to have a less sensitive amygdala (part of the brain that tells us we’re in danger). “These children will be happy to approach new people, do new things and often take risks,” the article says. “At the fun fair they will be the ones who beg to go on the highest slides and the loudest rides.”
Aha Parenting.com also points out that strong-willed children can be viewed as people of integrity who won’t easily back down from what they feel is right. “Strong-willed kids are spirited and courageous,” they say. “They want to learn things for themselves rather than accepting what others say, so they test the limits over and over. They… live at full throttle.”
That sounds like a leader to us! Within many a strong-willed and boisterous child there may lay a leader, ready to be molded by your experienced and caring hands. That energy can be channeled toward leading projects, discovering new things, and making a positive impact on the world. Present those students with the challenges and activities that build upon their natural inclinations.
If you’ve identified students in your classes who have leadership potential, nominate them for one of Envision’s many leadership programs, such as the Junior National Young Leaders Conference (JrNYLC), the Global Young Leaders Conference (GYLC), or the Global Young Innovators Initiative (GYII). At conferences like these, young leaders flourish in the company of like-minded peers, as Envision sharpens their essential leadership abilities through skills workshops, onsite experiences and hands-on learning.