Strong Leaders: Genes or Education?

January 16th, 2013 / 2 Comments

The ongoing nature vs. nurture debate about human identity has a parallel in leadership studies. It appears in the question, “Are some people born with strong leadership skills or can good leadership be learned?”

Natural Born Leaders?

            Just about everyone wants to say leadership can be learned. But the evidence for naturally derived leadership abilities seems strong. While few would say our genes entirely determine who we become, there’s strong evidence that genetics plays a powerful role in shaping whom we turn out to be. This is one reason we see many families with a long history of producing leaders.

            In addition to the deep-seated desire most have to believe we are more than what nature determines is the evidence that education can make a difference. When we or others dedicate ourselves to improving our leadership skills, we often see positive change. The changes I see made between the time students first come to my university’s campus and when they graduate is evidence that education is effective.

            If we define leadership as the ability to influence others, we’re all probably born with some leadership abilities. But it seems our natural-born abilities for leadership differ in both quality and quantity.

            Perhaps leadership is like most abilities:  some people are born more naturally inclined to be leaders, but everyone can improve through education and determination. Those born with great potential may squander it. Others born with little natural leadership ability can build upon their few talents and become much more than anyone originally thought possible.

Throwing a Baseball Well

            A humorous Volkswagen commercial plays on television these days. It shows a young boy playing catch with his dad. Here’s the clip:


             In this clip, the boy seems to have two major strikes against his being able to throw a baseball well. He apparently wasn’t born with adept throwing abilities. And the education he’s receiving from his father will not help him much develop adept throwing skills.

            No matter what leadership skills we have today, good education and practice can improve us as leaders. Those who want to develop into better leaders should seek education that actually helps in this endeavor. Leadership development rarely occurs without effort.

            We need access to those who know good leadership and can model it well. We need contact with experts and the wisdom of those who have years of experience. Education matters!

            We won’t learn much from those who can’t throw a baseball any better than we can!

Wesley Center Leadership Conference

            If you’re interested in learning about leadership from some of the best leaders today, I invite you to the upcoming Leadership in God’s Reign of Love conference at Northwest Nazarene University. The conference is Feb. 7-8 in Nampa, Idaho.

            Here’s a link with more conference info and registration instructions.

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Tom Nees

Tom – You raise an interesting and important leadership topic.  Some would say that the leadership development movement of the last 40 years began with the Warren Bennis book, “On Becoming a Leader” in which he advanced the idea that leaders are made not born.  The prevailing theme in most books on leadership since has been that anyone can become a leader with the proper training.  In her 2012 book, “The End of Leadership,” Barbara Kellerman of Harvard questions that assumption.  She suggests that some people have leadership aptitudes that set them apart.  It’s difficult to know for sure.  In a study of iconic leaders it would be difficult to predict their success based on their early lives.  Leadership, like talent, is not a stand alone skill.  It is always about advancing something important, a cause or a passion.  Leadership happens in the pursuit of something that matters.


Socialization is of course a third major factor, so it would be good to teach social skills like active listening, patience, and compassion to children along with bible stories and such, like language use these are harder skills to learn as an adult but should also be part of any continuing education.

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