Natural “gifts”, talent, and leadership training

Natural “gifts”, talent, and leadership training

Since the question of ‘natural born leaders’ keeps coming back to me from individuals in my corporate seminars and classes, I will continue the discussion of leadership training by showing some of the recent evidence that we are more in control of our leadership development than we ever thought possible.

Today, an overwhelming majority of successful business leaders, teacher and researchers of leadership believe that leaders are made, not born.  In spite of this, students and seminar participants are forever trying to convince me that our natural gifts of birth will determine our leadership ability.

In fact, there is an increasing amount of evidence that in the making of any expert (be it a business leader, a musician, a writer or a world-class golfer, on whatever), talent and natural gifts may be irrelevant.  Or, if the ‘gifts’ we are born with or come by a ‘naturally’ are relevant, they play only a very minor role in what we can become or achieve.

Certainly the research is showing clearly that practice and environment are far more important than talent when it comes to producing outstanding achievement in any field.

I will begin my discussion of the ‘made not born’ concept with a quote John Kotter’s book Leading Change.  Kotter is a long-time professor of management at Harvard Business School, and a widely recognized authority on leadership and change.

“The single biggest error in the traditional model is related to its assumptions about the origins of leadership.  Stated simply, the historically dominant concept takes leadership skills as a divine gift of birth, a gift granted to a small number of people.  Although I, too, once believed this, I have found that the traditional idea simply does not fit well with what I have observed in nearly thirty years of studying organizations and the people who run them.”

I find this quotation interesting because it explains that the ‘historically dominant concept’ that leaders are more born than made is simply false, based on Kotter’s vast experience of 30 years in the field.

Unfortunately, most of society seems to believe what Kotter believed three decades ago about the origins of leadership.

So I ask this question: it were true that leaders are born rather than made, why do we pay so much attention to leadership development and leadership training?  Are we wasting our time?

1 Comment

  1. John Antonius 13 years ago

    I’ll start by replying to your post by a confession of my own similar to that of Kotter’s: I too was a strong believer in the notion of born leaders. I also recall arguing that with you in one of our classes together, but experience has taught me otherwise.

    I would simply argue my previously held belief by pausing a rhetorical question: Does every person with a born talent or gift become a leader in that field (musician, writer, politician, artist, etc)?

    Since the answer to that is obviously NO then we should address the subject of nurturing leadership; the answer to the question above also makes me resort to a concept addressed in Robin Sharma’s book entitled Leadership Wisdom. Sharma talks about Performance Gaps: a theory that explains why knowledge (or talent) generally does not translate into results. Power and competitive advantage come only when sound information is decisively acted upon.

    Leadership development and training help us realize that potential by giving us the proper tools and techniques needed to attain our objectives.

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