Management Under The Microscope

Leaders are born, not made

March 18, 2021 IMD
Management Under The Microscope
Leaders are born, not made
Show Notes Transcript

Over a hundred years ago, the explorer Ernest Shackleton safely led his crew through a series of disasters in one of the world's harshest environments. His achievement is often held up as a gold standard of leadership. But was he able to lead because of personality traits he was born with - or because of skills he acquired over time? In this opening episode, Professor Michael Wade takes a closer look at the nature vs nurture debate in leadership - and makes some surprising discoveries.



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Written and presented by Michael Wade.

Guests: George Kohlrieser, Alyson Meister.

Produced by Pete Naughton.

On August 1, 1914, the sailing ship Endurance departed London for Buenos Aires, and then continued on to a whaling station on the island of South Georgia, deep in the Atlantic Ocean. Having been beaten to the South Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen three years earlier, captain Ernest Shackleton planned to be the first person to lead a team across the Antarctic continent via the South Pole. However, when he and his crew left the island on December 5th, it would be an astonishing 497 days until they would touch land again.  

The story of what unfolded has been used by many scholars as an example of great leadership. Not much more than a month after setting sail from South Georgia, the Endurance became hopelessly trapped in the sea ice. It never even reached the Antarctic continent. Shackleton had to maintain the men’s morale as the ship was cruelly and inevitably crushed by slow moving ice. After the ship was lost, he led the crew on a harrowing journey, first across the sea ice and later in three small boats on a voyage north, eventually reaching a small uninhabited island on the edge of the South Atlantic Ocean. While the men were unlikely to starve – they subsisted on penguin and seal meat – morale became dangerously low. The island was far from any shipping lanes, and even though the mainland wasn’t very far away, the wind and water currents meant that they would never reach it under the power of sail. 

Taking a single 7 metre boat and 5 men, Shackleton took the decision to venture out into the open ocean in search of South Georgia. They navigated rough waters for 14 days crossing 1,300 kilometres before finally landing on the west coast of the island. The boat was so damaged when they arrived that they were unable to continue to the whaling station on the island’s east side. So, Shackleton and his exhausted men had to traverse the mountains and glaciers of the perilous island before they finally reached help 2 days later. 

Once he got his health back, Shackleton launched a rescue party for the remaining men still stuck on the small, remote, uninhabited island. In spite of the perilous hazards they'd faced, not a single member of Shackleton’s 28-men team died during the nearly two years they were stranded.

Many of Shackleton’s men were tough, experienced sailors, not necessarily open to taking orders. They were put under immense physical and mental stress for many months, but to a man, they were willing to follow Shackleton and trusted him completely. Did Shackleton have an innate ability to lead or was leadership something that he learned over time? 

This begs a broader question: are great leaders born or made? The stakes are high for all of us, because if it’s all nature, and we didn’t happen to be born the right way, then, if we want to be a leader we’re basically out of luck. On the other hand, if leaders are made, and it’s more about nurture, then just about any of us can get there. 

Theme music

I’m Michael Wade, a professor at the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland and this is ‘management under the microscope’. In each episode we take a widely held assumption about business, management, or leadership -- and we put it to test - giving you an inside look into the facts behind the myths, and helping you to become a better, more informed manager. In this episode we’re going to explore the nature and nurture sides of leadership. 

it's one of the great myths that leaders are born and not made and it's absolutely a myth it's wrong. I'm of the belief that the research is not demonstrated there's genetic foundation to leadership, and that there's so many other circumstances so I think we can unequivocally say leaders are made, not born. 

That’s IMD professor and author of a number of best-selling books on leadership, George Kohlrieser. He doesn’t have any doubt that leaders are a product of their environment, their upbringing, the choices they make, and how hard they work. He backs this up with a quote by the man that many see as the father of leadership theory, Warren Bennis. 

Warren was my one of my great mentors he taught until he was 89 in the MBA program at UCLA or, University of California. The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born. The myth asserts that people simply either have certain characteristics or not. That's pure nonsense leaders are made, rather than born. That's one of his great quotes. And of course all leaders are born. Yeah.

Yes, that’s certainly true… we were all born, but did some of us come into the world more likely to become leaders? There was a strong movement in the 1840s led by Thomas Carlyle that promoted the Great Man Theory (yup, that’s really what it was called). This theory suggests that leadership traits are intrinsic, and will emerge when confronted with the appropriate situation. It’s based on certain qualities and talents, such as deep honesty, moral vision, and compassion, that make some people well-suited for leadership. Other research has looked at characteristics such as height, facial structure, extroversion, even birth order in a search for the holy grail of leadership. 

But, if that’s the case, then a lot of the billions of dollars that companies spend on leadership training is probably being wasted. And, do we really believe that people become leaders because they are confident or tall?

Before we disregard the nature argument, let’s take a little closer look at the science. And for this, we need to look at fish, the three-spined stickleback to be specific. It turns out that there are large differences in the extent to which these fish emerge from covered areas to explore their environments. Some of them are bold and act as leaders, while others are shy and prefer to follow. A team of Japanese researchers tried to see what would happen if the roles were reversed. They put the fish in pairs, consisting of one leader and one follower, and incentivized them to adopt the reverse role. The results were quite interesting. While leaders could learn to follow, the reverse was not the case… followers didn’t learn to become leaders. If we extend this to human behavior, it may indicate that leadership is an innate quality.

But, that’s a big if. After all, we’re not fish. How do we test for the genetics of leadership in humans? One answer is to look at twins. Identical twins are particularly useful, since they share 100% of their genetic material, but plenty of studies have also used fraternal twins, who share 50%. The results over dozens of studies are pretty consistent – leadership does show a significant degree of genetic bias, coming in at around 30%. So, that’s 30% nature and 70% nurture. 

While this work seems promising, it has also been subject to a lot of criticism. Twin studies make assumptions that may not be valid, such as environmental equality, and many of the results come from self-assessments which can be subject to significant biases. 

Now, there may be some genetic aspect in terms of assertiveness or ambition, but this can be fully understood in terms of childhood experiences the whole experience of what happens as you go through life, and the how the formation happens because people who would be also sons or daughters of great leaders, often are very underperforming. As a matter of fact they have a high rate of failure, so that you would expect if that was genetic that that would not take place, and that is based on how the parent treats that child, as they grow up. 

That’s George Kohlrieser again making the point that if leadership was a genetic trait, then we would expect to see families producing generation after generation of leaders. There is just no evidence of this happening. Plus, there are plenty of examples of leaders who don’t come from families with any significant history of leadership, such as Walt Disney or John D. Rockefeller, both of whom emerged from families with no clear leaders. All in all, it’s really not looking good for the nature side.

To help better understand the roots of leadership, I turned to someone who has made a career of training ordinary people to become leaders. Alyson Meister is a professor of Leadership at IMD and Director of our Future Leaders program. I asked ‘her’ if she thought that great leaders were born or made.

Okay. Well, first of all, I love the question because it's an ongoing debate that I have in class all the time. But you know, I really wouldn't be in this profession. If I didn't believe that you could make great leaders, so I personally think that anyone with the right motivation can become a great leader. But that being said, all of this kind of comes down to your definition of what greater leadership is. 

So I like to ask people to think about, you know, close your eyes and picture a great leader.

I suppose we all have different images of leaders. When I close my eyes, people like Churchill, Gandhi, Mandela, and Ernest Shackleton pop into my mind. It’s probably quite different for you.

Everybody has what I call the leadership prototype. That's kind of their unconscious first flash of what a leader is to me. And this comes from what you've been taught it comes from society. It comes from experiences you've had with leaders and you know labels you put on who's a good leader and who's not a good leader. 

Now that I reflect on my own unconscious biases, it’s pretty depressing. All my prototypes are dead men. But, they did get me thinking about nature versus nurture. I am pretty sure that Gandhi never took a leadership course. And Shackleton was famously inept when it came to both business ‘and’ politics. 

I asked Alyson Meister why lots of great leaders never took leadership training and whether that might be a sign than genetics played a role.

Alyson Clip 6: how can you explain that many famous leaders never took a leadership course?

I think they did take leadership courses, their courses just weren't official courses they were this course of life of experience of growing and of testing and failing. I mean, Gandhi didn't become a Leader overnight either, right. So this is you know it Mandela didn't become a leader overnight. You know Mandela became a leader through practice through trial and error. Through developing a vision and practicing it and then learning how to communicate it inspiring people behind it. 

Let’s dig a little deeper into the differences between being born a leader and being made a leader. Alyson Meister likes to recast the born/made, nature/nurture debate into traits and behaviours. Traits are things you are born with, and behaviours are things you learn to do.

there are certain traits that people are born with that are More likely to make them emerge as a leader or become a leader be selected as a leader, for example in groups. They call that leadership emergence So traits like extraversion intelligence narcissism conscientiousness. These are things that these are kind of traits that people have that are made that will make them like more likely to emerge as leaders in groups. That being said, there's also behaviors, learned behaviors that people have in groups that are more likely to make them become leaders. 

personally I would say if I were going to put numbers on it. I would go 75% to 80% is learned you know nature versus, you know, 20% will give you that extra boost on that the born traits side.

It seems pretty clear that nurture is more important than nature when it comes to becoming an effective leader. As I mentioned earlier in the episode, this is good news for any of us who have the aspiration to lead. You can learn to do it. So, what are some concrete steps that people like you and I can take to increase the chances of becoming an effective leader. 

For George Kohlrieser, a number of elements are at play. One of them is to be able to effectively work through adversity and learn to deal with challenging environments. 

Yeah, and that that starts very early, for example, playing on team sports for young women, for example, one of the most important things parents can do for their daughters, is to get them on a sports team, a team that is soccer or basketball based, where they have to get out there and they have to feel the pain they have to bang around get hit and fall on the ground, and be able to hold their own and stand on the ground, and believe in themselves, and at the same time as having that experience, have the possibility of pushing back to the parents, especially the father for the daughters to argue to negotiate to do wire the brain very early in how to stand your ground without alienating. 

Sometimes leaders who are considered high performing leaders, but they create diversity. They create division. They don't know how to unify, and they don't know how to connect or create bonding, so that the great leaders are always going to be great communicators, in the sense that they can inspire, they can bring people together.

Communicating effectively, bringing people together, negotiating… these are all behaviours that take time to develop, and there aren’t too many shortcuts.

And so that whole myth of the Great Leader is a myth. And here I turn a mic to Anders Ericsson who's probably the outstanding researcher on high performance, in which he says, we, as a society, want to look up to our heroes. Our leaders, our champions and say because we did not get there. They must have some innate mechanism that made it happen. So it takes away the guilt that we're not quite as good as they are, and you have to practice correctly, and you have to have a mentor, and this is the one thing that we see in leaders is that they will always refer to their mentors their coaches, those people who emulate it. And if they do not have such a thing. They make poor decisions and they go down the wrong track.

Anders Ericsson was the guy who figured out that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, and sometimes much more, to master anything, and the same is true for leadership. Practice makes perfect. But, that’s not all. Mentors seems to come up again and again in the leadership literature. Richard Branson claimed that “if you ask any successful businessperson, they will always have had a great mentor at some point along the road.” His mentor was Freddie Laker. 

Mark Zuckerberg sought counsel from Steve Jobs, Bill Gates considers Warren Buffet as his mentor, Plato mentored Aristotle. Oprah Winfrey, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz have all spoken about the influence that mentors have had on their careers. 

I asked George Kohlrieser what you should look for in a mentor.

a mentor would be someone who has gives you a sense of trust, psychological safety, that you feel safe so the brain shuts down for learning. You also want to look for a mentor who's going to be honest, who gives you good tough feedback. No sugarcoating, but done with respect so that you can hear the truth. We have so many leaders who live in a world of non reality because nobody had the guts to tell them what the truth is, and how you do that with respect becomes very important. So, someone you feel psychological safety with that you feel trust you know they have competence. 

Having a good mentor clearly seems to be an important part of developing strong leadership capabilities, but there’s also an important role of self-management. Alyson Meister has an interesting perspective on this based on some research she conducted on stories we tell ‘ourselves’ about our own leadership abilities. 

 we looked at around 100 men and women leaders who are already leaders and we talked to them about how did they become leaders And we found that the stories, people were telling about their leadership and about what leaders are and what they do fell into four kind of categories. And these former first being so these are the natural born leaders. These are the people who tell stories about, well, actually. One person literally said, I came out the chute being a leader.
So, you know, these are the people that say I was a leader, since birth. And so all of the stories they remember all the stories they reflect on are you know I was always a leader when I was on the playground as a kindergarten student, I was the leader. I was directing others. And actually around 50% of people, both men and women said they were natural born leaders. 

So, about half of the leaders in the study always considered themselves to be leaders. They weren’t simply born or made, they somehow felt they were pre-destined. Basically, if you consider yourself a natural born leader, you are more likely to become one. 

But, only 50% of leaders always thought of themselves that way. What about the other 50%?
Then we have the engagers. These are the people who became leaders through what they were doing their behaviors. So creating a vision, bringing people along in effecting change having a vision for I want to create a company and build it up. So these were the people who didn't talk about being born leaders their leadership was more tied to what they did on a day to day basis.
And the third category was performers. So, we call these are the leaders who they only Recognized leaders and felt like leaders when they got the title, the business card that said so. Well, of course I wasn't a leader until I became, you know, a CFO or until I had a team of X amount of people. So this was more tied to the company.
And then there's finally the acceptors and these are the ones. If you think of your traditional servant leaders. They didn't feel they were born leaders; these were the leaders who
Acts felt that once people were following them when when they, when they could support when they could enable others that made them a leader, they're much more other oriented.
And these prototypical packages of leaders we had in our head influences how they actually enact their leadership on a day to day basis. So the different behaviors and how they lead. So this is kind of like a self reinforcing cycle.

Can you recognize yourself in one of these prototypes? If you are a leader, did it influence how you developed. What this research shows is that whether leaders are born or made is not just an academic question. It is such a powerful metaphor that it can actually influence what type of leader you become. The stories we tell we tell ourselves ‘about’ ourselves impact our behaviors. Our mindset about our identity shapes our destiny, at least when it comes to leadership. 

Beyond having the right mindset, what could you do if you wish to increase your odds of being a great leader? How can you accelerate the nurture part?

So for somebody who wants to become more effective as a leader. I think there's a there's so many things you can do. First of all, self awareness of knowing who you are right now. And so knowing what your strengths are knowing what your development areas are knowing what your passions and your motivations are If you know yourself. You know the identity. You come from the purpose, you have the impact that you want to make in the world. If you first can you know develop that sense of who you are. Then you can figure out how to use that and tap into that to lead others to make a difference. 

It's also important to be self-aware about why you want to become a leader.

George clip 6: Advice for people who want to become leaders
Being a leader is a choice. I want to be a leader. Why would someone want to be a leader. Well, because it's a great feeling a great experience. It also brings service or a sense of meaning and purpose so I am here as a leader because I want to make the world a better place. Ego does not drive it arrogance does not drive it. And one of the big problems in leadership is sorting out when you have enough ego, because if you don't have enough you're going to be too weak. And when you have so much ego, it overwhelms and destroys others 

As George Kohlrieser notes, ego can work both ways when it comes to leadership. Too much ego can lead to narcissism and self-destructive behaviour. We’re all seen examples of this in politics, business, entertainment, sports… it’s anywhere you look. But lack of ego can also be a dangerous impediment to leadership development. Ultimately, leadership is a personal journey. 

there was a book on how to lie with statistics, I think we all know, you can distort things by how you look at things and I think that's a little bit true for the people who truly believe leaders are born, which gives us all a way out. Well, I'm not born a leader, so let me just take the easy way. I won't even try to be a great leader, I won't live my dream. And I think leadership we have to understand is not just leading an organization or team it's also leading yourself. So in your life if you have a dream, and you work towards that dream with ambition, with consistency with the ability to learn along the way, you're a leader, leading yourself.

Ernest Shackleton’s most famous Antarctic expedition was not his first, it was his third. The first two were failures. He was part of an expedition with Robert Falcon Scott in 1901, in which he and Scott trekked closer to the South Pole than anyone else to that point. He ‘led’ his first expedition there in 1908, and came even closer, but ultimately fell short. On each trip, he learned valuable lessons about how to survive the harsh conditions on the continent. For example, he learned from Amundsen’s success in 1911 that dogs were far better companions on the ice than Scott’s donkeys.

He also learned a lot about how to lead people. 

He learned that boredom and despair were as dangerous as wind and ice. He kept up a regular schedule of meals and chores even when there was little to do. High spirits were maintained through nightly singing, games, and skits. He kept an “open-door policy” for anyone who had worries, concerns, or ideas to share. He made sure that all the men cross-trained in various roles to increase their collective ability to respond to changing needs. Even after 10 months stuck on the ice with a crippled ship, one man wrote in his journal that it was “one of the happiest periods of his life.”

Shackleton learned that rigidity could lead to disaster. During the 15-day voyage in small boats after leaving the ship, Shackleton changed the plan four times as the environment shifted. He avoided getting emotionally attached to a particular plan no matter how much time was spent devising it. And each time, he needed to convince the men of the new approach. 

Sir Raymond Priestley, a scientist who served on Antarctic expeditions with both Scott and Shackleton, once wrote the following: 

“For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Indeed, when it comes to our own leadership journeys, we shouldn’t just follow in the shoes of others. Nurture doesn’t mean that there’s a single best path for everyone.

I think we in business schools do a lot of good teaching leadership, but we also do something dangerous. And that is to use an overemphasis on here are the great leaders. Now how did they succeed, that just be like them and you will be great. So you study jack welsch you study Steve Jobs are and nobody's going to do the same thing, but the implication is that you have to do that same thing now. Learning from models is excellent I really believe in the cases, and the case study method about leadership, but make sure that we move back to finding your own authentic way of being a leader. No two leaders will ever be the same, because they have to find their own internal power. 

Different situations call for different leadership styles. Today, the environment is shifting more rapidly than ever, with the inevitability of the ice under Shackleton’s ship, but much faster. Just look at the COVD-19 pandemic. In a matter of weeks in the spring of 2020, many leaders had to radically adjust their leadership approach. Long terms planning had to make way for very short-term tactical decisions about supply chains, working conditions, and sanitation. Cheerleaders had to become cost-cutters, and vice versa. Effective leadership is a shifting target and many leaders have struggled with the transition. 

I think that the conclusion to this debate about whether leaders are born or made is that, today, neither is sufficient. Whatever leadership traits you may have been born with are unlikely to give you much of an advantage. 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs are over 6’2’ or 188cm tall, which is the case for less than 4% of the general population; but I refuse to believe that being this tall makes you a better leader. 

Today, leadership capability comes mostly from nurture, not nature. But learned behavior is not as enduring as it used to be. Leaders need to remake themselves constantly. Steve Jobs was not the same leader during his second stint at Apple that he was the first time around. 

Unfortunately, it can be hard for leaders to learn and change. They can easily get comfortable in their styles and set in their ways. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella likes to say, the learn-it-all will always beat the know-it-all, but putting that into practice is easier said than done. This is where mentors can play a major role, as George Kohlrieser pointed out, to provide clear, honest signals within the noise that often surrounds a leader.

So, the advice from this episode should be empowering. As Alyson Meister said, with the right experiences, the right attitude, the right training, and the right support, just about anyone can become a great leader. But if you get there, don’t get too comfortable, as the rapidly evolving world will challenge you to adapt, change, and constantly remake your approach to leadership.

You’ve been listening to Management Under The Microscope - written and presented by me, Michael Wade, and produced by Pete Naughton. 

We’re a production of the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland - one of the world’s leading providers of insights and education for executives.

To find out more about us, and our new magazine, i-by-IMD, follow the link in the shownotes of this episode.

Next week, we’ll be putting another common assumption under the microscope: the idea that Chinese companies prefer to copy ideas - rather than come up with their own. 

We’ll hear from experts with decades of experience of doing business in China - and discover that - far from writing them off as copycats - many forward-thinking Western companies are now turning to China for innovation...

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