“Are Leaders Born or Made?” Not the Right Question? (Part One)

The “born or made” leadership question has been the subject of debate in psychology, management and consulting circles for decades.  However, the debate has been largely influenced by conclusions made from inferred observations and personal opinion versus real evidence. 

Some years back I was driving home after dropping my son off at his university dorm on a Sunday evening listening to a CBC radio interview with Dr. Jerome Kagan, a retired Harvard developmental psychologist who, by the way, was ranked 22nd of the top 100 eminent psychologists of all time; even one above Carl Jung.  The interview was so fascinating and engaging that I continued to drive well past my highway exit so I could hear it all.  I then immediately bought and read his book “An Argument for Mind” which elaborated on his core research.  The historic and prevailing view of developmental psychology is that personality and temperament are largely shaped by one’s environment.  Anyone who has gone to their high school reunion knows this can’t be true as the folks you re-connected with after 20 or 30 years still exhibit the same core personality traits back then even though their environment is vastly different now.  

Kagan’s research on innate temperament clearly challenges this prevailing notion as well and puts forward the premise of a more enduring temperament and personality defined more by biology than situation and environment.  For him the major questions were: How does personality emerge? What traits are we born with and which ones develop over time? He conducted tests on over 500 infants and followed them through to adolescence and even adulthood.  He found that infants who demonstrated inhibited (shy, timid, fearful, skittish) reactions to new objects, situations and individuals developed into anxious, nervous adolescents and adults.  He referred to these as ‘high-reactives’.  Conversely, infants that did not exhibit such reactions as infants developed into relaxed, sociable, composed and curious adults who were not easily ruffled. These, he referred to as “low-reactives”.  In summary Kagan’s lab observations of infants revealed dispositions that were stable and predictive and thus preserved into adolescence and beyond.  Furthermore, these findings were not affected by the actual environment those studied were parented in.

As a result of this ground breaking work, he has shown that an infant’s “temperament” is quite stable over time, in that certain behaviours in infancy are predictive of certain other behaviour patterns in adolescence and adulthood.

Kagan conducted his original research without the use of the neuroscience technology available today and which over the past 10 years has catapulted the “born versus made” debate into a whole new realm, something I will talk about in Part Two.  Clearly though, we inherit a temperament and personality framework genetically at birth which suggests that leaders are born if they have the “right” temperament. 

Additionally, however, Kagan also believed that there is no guarantee of an indefinitely stable profile considering environmental factors are always changing and that both genes and environmental factors influence a child’s temperament.  So there is an argument as well that leaders are made.  Perhaps the right question about leadership development is more accurately articulated as “What do we do with what we inherit?”

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