Born That Way? Is Effective Leadership an Innate Trait or Can it Be Taught?

September 9, 2012 at 6:37 AM
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Categories: Academic leadership

Born That Way? Is Effective Leadership an Innate Trait or Can it Be Taught?


Cynthia Bainton and Jim Stellar


“I must follow the people.  Am I not their leader?” – Benjamin Disraeli.


We have discussed leadership in previous blog entries but in this one we want to examine whether effective leadership can be taught or whether it is an innate personality trait.  For this blog, we will take opposing views, although the difference between us is actually very small.


I believe that effective leadership is a trait you are born with.  Not that these individuals are born knowing everything they need to know about leading.  Rather, I believe they are born with the desire to lead well and the ability to be open to learning from their mistakes and particularly to learning from the individuals they are trying to lead (note the quote above by Benjamin Disraeli, Great Britain’s 19th century prime minister and statesman).  Capt. Michael Abrashoff whom we first introduced you to in our blog entry of 5/18/09, says that “Exceptional leaders have always been rare, but they can be made as well as born, and the Benfold story is a case in point.”  Certainly Capt. Abrashoff had many lessons to learn when he took over as commander of the ship Benfold, but I maintain that it was his willingness to learn that made him an effective leader and that that willingness was a trait he had possessed all along.


Willingness to learn from others, willingness to be open to ideas, in essence a sensitivity and receptiveness to others, it is those intangible things that make up emotional intelligence.  In his article “What Makes a Leader?”, Daniel Goleman cites emotional intelligence as the innate trait of effective leaders saying “It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities’; that is, they are the entry level requirements for executive positions. But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world; an inclusive, analytical mind and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”


There is no question that some people have a higher degree of emotional intelligence than others and that if it is coupled with a great idea about the institution the two traits together can produce powerful leadership.  To me, that is the essence of the Jim Collins book, “Good to Great.”  But the question of whether the emotional intelligence can be learned or markedly improved upon, fascinates me.  I think that it can be “learned.”  I get this from the now famous 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his book “Outliers,” but there may be an element of the way that practice is applied that is important too and for that I turn to the book “Talent Code” by Coyle.  He thought that supremely concentrated, thoughtful practice could make for much more effective practice and that this state may be a requirement for the neuroplasticity that is needed to re-shape the skill-producing brain circuits.  I say if skill can be so learned, why not traits like emotional intelligence.


I agree that practice, especially where there is opportunity for trial and error, is essential for improving leadership performance (Capt Abrashoff admits that learning from his mistakes helped him to become a better leader.)  I should say practice and learning by example because certainly there are effective ways of  leading people that are taught and learned (think about the thought provoking leadership courses some of you may have taken.  I myself am put in mind of the inspiring course I took at the Simmons School of Management – Leading Individuals and Groups.)  But what about the drive to lead in the first place (should I say passion) as well as the desire to improve upon one’s performance when mistakes are made?  Aren’t those characteristics that comes from deep inside one’s psyche, a characteristic that you are born with, not taught?


Excellent point.  What drives people?  Is it even always good?  Some may want to become a leader to have power, not to produce good.  Seeing that in action in the 1960’s was my first disappointment in a movement from my generation that was designed to fight the power-structure of the times.  If such a person really studied hard could they get good at emotional intelligence? While anything is possible, I think not.  To do what you need to do (be a good leader), we need to have a good person.  So, where does that come from?  Is it parenting, experiences one has in growing up, learning by the example of good people one knows, even religion? 


One thing that is clear is that when a student comes to college, it is very far down the line in terms of human development for many of these basic human approaches.  Also, some would question whether colleges were set up for this task or wether it was just too much in loco parentes to even try to take on the task of making college students into good people. We can teach them to think critically and must.  But I am not sure about “good people.” However, if any force can make such change in a person it is probably the relentless social interaction of peers, perhaps coupled with the college’s providing some background knowledge and service or other experiential opportunities.


What do we think this exchange means for experiential education and this blog?  What do you think?

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