Nature or Nurture: Training the Leader of the Pack

CesarOnce again I must thank my mentor, Cesar Millan, for the inspiration for this week’s blog.  He said that “when humans bring a dog into their lives, they are most often looking for a companion; what they may not realize is that they are getting a teacher as well.”  This is true in a business sense, too.  When we bring a potential leader into our organization, we should be getting someone who can teach or positively influence others.  But teaching goes both ways…is it really possible to teach someone to be an effective leader or is it just genetics coming into play?

Many organizations decide they want to implement a leadership development program because they need better leaders or people who could be put into some kind of succession plan.  The HR department gets the charge to put “something together” and manages to get someone to run the program, get people into it and maybe even toss in a measure or two to try to link the success of the program to a business goal–all within a few months.  Is it any surprise then, that so many of these programs lose steam after one year or fall flat due to budget cuts?  Aside from the timing and operational issues, the real question centers on whether or not leadership development programs truly teach people to be good leaders.

Leadership by its definition is a very complex.  Some say that leadership is a natural thing, that we are born with the innate qualities it takes to be a leader.  Psychologists have continuously searched for the personal attributes that would describe leaders and differentiate them from the rest of the pack.  A large body of research supports the theory that the “Big Five” of personality traits underlie all others and encompass most of the significant variation in human personality. In addition to providing a cohesive framework, research has also found strong relationships between the Big Five and job performance, especially in terms of successful leadership.  It’s no surprise then that tools like the Myers-Briggs’ MBTI® or DiSC® tend to be a part of LD programs.

More recent research shows that effective leaders have emotional intelligence (EI).  Daniel Goleman found that high levels of EI predicts high performance.  I would even go so far as to say that the combination of EI and the Big Five trait of extroversion defines charisma.  A definitive study conducted in 1999 on the personalities of two executive management teams found that over a period of five years the charismatic personality of the executive manager and of the team he selected was key to understanding a company’s rise or decline in the market.  


Now on the other hand, behavioral theories focus on identifying the specific behaviors that differentiate leaders from nonleaders, which implies that these behaviors can be taught, i.e., leadership is a competency that can be broken down into concrete sets of trainable skills.  The most comprehensive of the behavioral theories resulted from research conducted at Ohio State University in the late 40s where the researchers narrowed a thousand different leadership dimensions into two categories: (1) task/structure and (2) relationship/consideration.  The managerial grid developed by Blake and Mouton and the contingency leadership theory developed by Hersey and Blanchard in the 1960s serve as the landmarks for situational leadership theory today.  The Hersey-Blanchard theory in particular focuses on the leader being able to select the right behavioral style based on followers’ willingness and ability.   

So, in my mind good leadership really is a combination of personality and environment. Which brings us back to our original question:  can people be trained in leadership?  The answer to me is an unequivocal yes.  Strong, results-driven leadership development programs worth their salt screen for the necessary Big Five personality traits and then provide adult-centered interventions to develop the skills necessary to:

  • Run the task/structure of a business, such as strategic planning and financial management.
  • Develop the relationship/consideration in teams, such as communication and conflict management.
  • Understand the self and corresponding behavior by opening the Johari Window through extensive feedback, coaching and 360° profiling.

Another question:  if “nature” and “nurture” are important elements of leader effectiveness then, how does experience play a part?  Many believe that the value of on-the-job experience is a strong predictor of leadership effectiveness. Research, however shows that experience alone is usually a very poor predictor of leadership.  There have been numerous studies of military officers, shop supervisors, and school principals that demonstrate that experienced leaders tend to be no more effective than leaders who have little experience.  The problem seems to be in the variability of the situations a leader finds himself in that influence whether or not the experience will transfer to that situation.  Another problem is the assumption that the amount of time a leader spends in a particular position is really a true measure of experience.  So, LD programs need to provide education, training and experience through action learning.

HerosRemember the heroes of September 11?  They may not have had the particular experience of being attacked by terrorists, but may have had the necessary personality traits and training in leading others and influencing them to action.

And that’s what we really need in any LD program.



  1. Alicia Smith-Turley says:

    Read “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell. He talks about the difference between “natural talent” and skills developed by practicing.

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