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Leadership is a mix of birth and development

By Justin Bodill – 

Are leaders born, or are they created? Now there is a question to raise some interesting debate. As a student of Leadership, and someone who works in the development space, it is one that has captivated me for some time.

The short answer in my opinion, is that it is a bit of both. So let me explain why.


There is a fantastic book called ‘The Talent Code’. It challenges the belief that people are simply born with innate talent, and shows how we can all learn and develop skills with the right processes. In the book, the author Daniel Coyle visits various talent ‘hotbeds’ around the world and tries to understand how these places have managed to produce an impossibly high number of talented people, athletes etc. One example is a tennis club outside Moscow, which has produced more top 20 woman tennis players than the entire United States, despite only having one indoor court.  He finds certain trends, and similar to the idea of 10 000 hours of practice, he determines that much of this success comes from ‘deep’ practice, motivation and ‘master’ coaching.

All of this is aimed at building fast, accurate brains that ultimately allow the skill and performance of this individual to manifest. This ties in strongly with a wealth of research around neuroplasticity, which shows that our brains are capable of learning new skills at any age, and that with the right practice, motivation and coaching, this circuity builds and we see ‘talent’.


As much as I love this idea, I do also think that we are born with certain strengths and weakness i.e. certain natural skills that we possess, or at least have a predisposition towards. Think no further than an ability to sing, paint, work with numbers, speak in public or throw a ball. You can quickly tell whether someone has this type of skill or not. I believe any of these skills can be bettered with the right practise and coaching, but the ‘talent’ is there to begin with (in varying degrees), because we are born with it.


So what does this have to do with Leadership?

Leadership is often spoken about as some magical ability that people are blessed with at birth. These people grow up and become the great leaders that they are destined to be.

But in my mind Leadership is in fact a skill, or should I say a set of skills. These skills may differ across environments, but in essence I believe they still centre on a few core competencies, for example: self-awareness, positivity, influence, building relationships, emotional intelligence and communication. Leadership is therefore an outcome, of those skills being executed and utilised appropriately and successfully.

With that in mind, it becomes clear that Leadership is something that can be taught, and also learnt. If we seek to understand what great leadership is, and we focus on the key characteristics that make good leaders (like the ones I have mentioned), we can grow these skills, and practice applying them. Again, the need for good practices, motivation and coaching becomes critical, particularly because leadership is not static – it is more of a lifelong pursuit, rather than a task. Therefore, anyone can lead with the appropriate skills. Leadership, as they say, is not confined to a title, and a modern leader understands that it is the characteristics and skills that they display, that inspire people to follow them.

With that being said, I feel it is also true that some people will have a greater natural talent, or leaning towards these types of skills and behaviours than others. We are born with certain personality traits, strengths and weaknesses, which will influence the ease with which we are able to unlock and display these skills as a leader.

The exciting thing for me, is that we all have the potential to be leaders. It is not a matter of destiny or birth right. The key is to realise that no leader becomes great without the right attitude and without putting in the time to hone their skills.

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Justin works as a Learning and Development Programme Manager and has spent the last 10 years in the corporate world of L&D. He holds an Honours Degree in Organisational Psychology from UCT, and is also a qualified Integral Coach (ACC). He has a passion for how people identify and develop their talents, and is particularly interested in leadership development.


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