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Is Leadership Nature or Nurture?


The nature vs. nurture debate is a long standing issue not only in relation to leadership, but in general terms as well. Researchers have failed to reach a consensus on whether leadership is an inborn phenomenon or whether it can be learnt. This essay will focus on leadership role occupancy rather than the effectiveness of already appointed leadership. Role occupancy is whether people occupy positions of leadership in organisations. Different theories relating to role occupancy are discussed, detailing evidence supporting these theories. While the theories take centre stage, different aspects of leadership are also discussed.


Leadership is a central component to organisational performance, however the definition remains illusive. Effective and ineffective leadership means different things to different people. Hogan et al. (1994) described leadership as the act of persuading other people in the pursuit of a common goal, a goal that is important for the welfare of the individual and the group as a whole. There lies a multitude of research on the subject of leadership. The underlying topic of discussion in most of the research is whether leadership is influenced by nature or nurture. Are there people predestined for leadership from birth or can people be trained and moulded into leaders? When discussing this, authors may choose to focus on role occupancy, which is whether people occupy positions of leadership in organisations (Arvey et al. 2006), or the effectiveness of those already in leadership positions. With the debate in mind, role occupancy seems to be a better fit as it provides more insight on whether those thought destined to lead actually take up leadership positions. There are different theories that attempt to describe how people come to power; some that originated from analysing the leaders of early years and others that emerged in contrast to previous expectations.

Emergence of Trait Theory

In 1907, Thomas Carlyle proposed the concept that certain individuals were born with traits that predisposed them to leadership roles. This was later coined the great man theory. At the time, however, the world was dominated by men in power and women were not thought of as leaders. Due to this, the findings that resulted were considered flawed and biased. This theory was later replaced by what is now known as the trait theory. The basic assumptions remain unchanged; however the theory does not discriminate according to gender. It asserts that people, both male and female, with a certain set of traits are more likely to emerge as leaders than those without these skills. This theory, however, does not guarantee leadership success, just appointment.

“The most basic approach to understanding leadership began from the assumption that good leadership resides in the innate abilities of certain individuals who were considered to be born leaders” (Linstead et al. 2004, p.327).

The leaders referred to at the time were Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, Hitler, Margaret Thatcher and many more. This led to the saying “Great men are born, not made”. The trait theory however did not assert whether these traits were inherited or acquired, just that they are different between leaders and non leaders (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991). The traits identified by Kirkpatrick & Locke (1991) include drive to lead, self confidence, cognitive ability, knowledge of the business, leadership motivation and honesty and integrity. Lord et al. (1986) indeed found that there were certain traits that proved to be good predictors of leadership. They went on further to state that any variability found in the characteristics may have been due to methodological reasons rather than evidence against the trait theory. Judge et al. (2002) conducted a meta-analysis which yielded the results that personality variables are consistently related with leadership emergence and effectiveness. This approach to leadership has been criticised for its simplistic nature and lack of a universal list of traits that can be used to characterise leadership.

Move from Trait Theory to Contingency Theories

The subjective nature of the trait theory and the lack of a uniform set of traits that could predict leadership led researchers to explore other types of studies to investigate the reliability of this theory. A noteworthy type of study when considering the trait theory’s assumptions is that of identical twins. It would be assumed that since leadership is a genetic phenomenon, then these twins who share the same genetic background are more likely to have an equal chance of whether they become leaders or not. Arvey et al. (2006) conducted a study where 238 identical twins were compared with 188 fraternal twins in order to investigate the basis of the trait theory assumption. It was found that 30% of the variance in leadership role occupancy could be explained by genetic factors while the remaining variance was due to environmental factors. This brings to light the notion that the environment in which the individual is in dictates whether they become a leader to a greater extent than innate qualities do. This concept can be explained by the contingency/situational theories which emphasise context as a key factor in leadership emergence.

In recent times, people have begun to think of leaders as people who are in the right place at the right time. The extreme of this notion illustrates that character has absolutely no role to play and anybody in the right conditions can be a leader. This was at its peak in the 1970s when Haney, Banks & Zimbardo (as cited in Haslam, Reicher & Platow, 2011) conducted a prison experiment which concluded that a person thrust into positions of leadership will assume responsibility of the role. This was found because the students assigned as prison guards acted with cruelty towards those cast as prisoners claiming that they were merely playing the role they were supposed to. Although the above is an extreme case, the underlying principals remain unchanged; the students acted as their roles dictated. This can be applied to leadership in the way that anyone put into a leadership position will assume this role regardless of any individual characteristics. Generalising from this study is difficult as it has come under great criticism, because not all the guards acted similarly, others were fair and did not behave inhumanely.

Integrated Approach

Both these theories look at leadership as an effect of a single perspective, overlooking the combined effect. A more plausible approach is to look at leadership as an interaction of both nature and nurture. In relation to the study that found personality as a good predictor, Johnson et al. (1998) noted that personality itself is dependent on genetic and environmental factors and so the extent to which each is responsible for leadership is not clear. Zhang et al. (2009) found a noteworthy result on their study on a sample of 89 pairs of identical and 54 pairs of fraternal twins. They found that genetic influences were greater for those who were reared in enriched environments and greater for those in poorer environments. This further illustrates the importance of the interaction between both genetics and the environment, thus both nature and nurture. In the business world, Li et al. (2011) found that unique genetic as well as environmental factors play a very crucial role in leadership role occupancy. They speculated that contextual factors such as supervisor’s sponsorship and the firm’s HRM practices may also influence who rises as a leader.

Certain traits may give people the potential to become leaders; however other factors need to present for that individual to actually take up a leadership position. A person does not simply rise to leadership from the mere possession of these traits. Moreover, there is no set of universally agreed upon traits, leadership is an interaction between the needs of a group and each member’s ability to satisfy those needs. An illustration often used is that of Winston Churchill; as an argumentative and opinionated individual, he was considered unsuitable for government. However, during wartime these were the qualities that led him to leadership, but they also got him voted out once the war was over. Therefore, the individual that emerges is one who can best meet the specific demands of that group, and as the needs change so will the leader. Kenny and Zaccaro (1983) conducted a study based on a rotation design where the task and member composition were varied. In this study, leadership emergence was not consistent, proving that rather than one individual with a special set of characteristics emerging as leader, different individuals with different skills that best met with the goals of the group became leader.

“I don’t think people are born to be leaders, I think that’s rubbish. I think it’s a developmental thing and a matter of opportunity…you can’t just define it as one thing” (cited in Haslam, et al., 2011, p.24).

Following the line of argument above, brings to mind the concept of implicit leadership theory. As described in Hogan et al. (1994), this theory states that leadership is the match made between the characteristics of the leader and the people’s preconceived notions of a leader. Each of us has certain ways we think a leader should behave and certain traits we think a leader should have; the person we make a leader is one who best fits into our set of opinions. Being perceived as a leader by others is of greater influence than actually having the ability to be a leader. Charismatic leaders live by this theory. A charismatic leader as described by Weber (1947) is one who influences followers not on formal authority, but on follower perceptions that the leader has exceptional qualities (cited in Yukl, 2006). Those that appear confident will be more likely to be thrust into leadership positions than those that seem less confident, regardless of their actual ability. Leadership is a function of the individual, the environment and the followers. Even in daily life this is evident; people are more likely to listen to a confident speaker than one that mumbles and does not speak with conviction. Unlike the trait theory which does not take into account culture as a determinant in leadership emergence, this concept does. Culture groups may vary in their conceptions of which characteristics a leader should have (Hartog et al., 1999), so in essence a person who arises as leader in one culture may not emerge as leader in another. Therefore, in some situations it is not the traits or the situation the individual is in that matter, but rather the perceptions they show to the audience.

Applications of the Theories

The theories presented above may seem highly theoretical and in need of practical applications in order to expound on these concepts more clearly. The trait theory is one with the most limited applicability; this theory asserts that people are born with characteristics that predispose them to being leader. With this notion, it would be almost impossible to equip people with these skills because these traits are innate and thus cannot be learnt. In relation to the contingency theories, HRM personnel now tend not to only focus on the traits of the potential employee but usually take a holistic approach when deciding who to hire. These days it is common for candidates to undergo a variety of tests and activities before being offered a job, from personality tests to cognitive ability tests and some even give case study exercises to evaluate how they would in different situations handle the given cases. A rather undermined application in organisations refers to the implicit leadership theory; this is that of follower training. Schyns and Meindl (2005) advocate that revealing to followers the errors of their perceptions of leaders, if any, can allow them to have more realistic expectations and therefore are more capable of selecting a competent leader.


Although it is clear that leaders possess certain qualities that make them stand out, the evidence suggests that it is not because they were destined for such positions. Instead, authors should look at leadership as a complex structure, dependent on many aspects that are not at the control of the individual. The context of the task, the task itself and the perception of the follower are some of the conditions that may influence leadership role occupancy. Past research has been too simplistic and focused on identifying a single variable, hence the debate of whether leadership is nature or nurture. This essay has shown that a more rewarding avenue to pursue is that of nature and nurture intertwined, although some authors may be so set in their ways that they reject anything alien to their own ideas.


Arvey, R.D., Rotundo, M., Johnson, W., Zhang, Z. & McGue, M. (2006). The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic and personality factors. The Leadership Quarterly, 17, 1-20.

Hartog, D.N.D., Hanges, P.J. & Dorfman, P.W. (1999). Culture specific and cross-culturally generalizable implicit leadership theories: Are attributes of charismatic/transformational leadership universally endorsed? The Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 219-256.

Haslam, S.A., Reicher, S.D. & Platow, S.D. (2011). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence and power. East Sussex: Psychology Press.

Hogan, R., Curphy, G.J. & Hogan, J. (1994). What we know about leadership: Effectiveness and personality. American Psychological Association, 49(6), 493-504.

Johnson, A.M., Vernon, P.A., McCarthy, J.M., Molson, M., Harris, J.A., & Jang, K.L. (1998). Nature vs Nurture: Are leaders born or made? A behaviour genetic investigation of leadership style. Twin Research, 1(4), 216-223.