Business is interested in effective leadership, but the question of what makes a person be a leader is unsolved. Researches have been investigating the topic and suggested numerous theories explaining the nature of leadership. However, debates, whether true leaders are born or made, are still ongoing. The outcomes of the studies are quite contradictive, and there seems to be no definite advantage of neither of the variants. The current paper provides recent opinions on the question of the leadership determinants. Since there are studies supporting both the genetic and environmental nature of leadership, the current trend seems to aim at integrative theories combining both approaches.
To start with, research on leadership demands to realize the meaning of the concept. However, the question cannot be straightforward because the term leadership seems to be constructive. In other words, this idea is determined within theories that consider leadership and, depending on the perspective, the definitions are different, and therefore, the subject of the research is not the same. This fact may explain the discrepancies revealed in the studies on the factors of leadership. Some researches, such as Dugan (2020), refuse to give a strict definition of leadership because being aware of all of the variants in the field should set a critical position that is beneficial for objective research. Thus, the definition of leadership depends on the theory it discussed within.
Numerous theories attempt to explain what determines to be a leader, but all of them can be subscribed to either nativist, behavioral, or integrative approaches. The former explains leadership as an inborn set of personal characteristics or traits. The assumption that traits are encoded in genes caused an extensive branch of genetic research. According to the review by Zaccaro, Green, Dubrow and Kolze (2018), “leader emergence, and leadership styles can be explained by factors tied to leader genetics” (p. 27). Another review also revealed the influence of genetic factors, along with the high correlation of leadership features with testosterone levels and with some functional and anatomical characteristics of the brain (Tuncdogan, Acar & Stam, 2017). Therefore, contemporary studies demonstrate evidence of the innate nature leadership qualities.
Behavioral theories present opposition to the nativist approaches and argue that learning, environment, and experience are the major factors of becoming a leader. Dugan (2020) claims that inborn leadership is a myth and that “empirical research illustrates that leadership is unequivocally learnable” (p. 39). As it was shown above, this statement may seem to be exaggerated, and even Dugan (2020) mentioned that it is still possible to be a talented leader, although this case is rare. Nevertheless, there are no fewer studies showing the small effect of genes or demonstrating the high predictive force of learning and conditions. Zaccaro et al. (2018) mentioned the studies showing the fact of having some leadership experience, as well as intercultural experience, significantly predicted emerging of leadership qualities. That is why it is also reasonable to say that conditions play an essential role in becoming a leader.
Giving the above, both nature and nurture seem to play a role in the appearance of a leader. For example, the reviews mentioned above draw attention to the discussion on how exactly genes influence becoming a leader (Tuncdogan et al., 2017; Zaccaro et al., 2018). They highlight that many studies revealed the primary role of the environment. In other words, even though there may be some genetic preconditions, it is environmental characteristics that mediate how genes reveal. That is why more and more researchers claim that the main question is to identify how these factors interact (Osland, 2017; Tuncdogan et al., 2017; Zaccaro et al., 2018). Osland (2017) suggests that the most effective approach is “selecting the right people” (p. 4) and teaching them how to develop their traits. However, such a strategy seems to result in discrimination of people who have less inborn talents but who have the motivation to learn.
Other theories argue that leadership is created due to the balance between personality traits and environmental factors. Zaccaro et al. (2018) suggested a model where a leader uses situational features in order to construct the context beneficial for this person’s leadership characteristics. Moreover, based on previous research on leadership, Zaccaro et al. (2018) insisted on the significant influence of early childhood experience on the revealing of inherited leader features. Most importantly, Zaccato et al. (2018) point out that there are many factors, both environmental and personal, which studies have to take into account to create a full model of leadership. It is too early to derive any conclusions unless all of the possible determinants are studies, and their influence is defined.
To conclude, the question of whether stable personal traits or environment determine leadership does not seem to be straightforward. In other words, since there is evidence for both points of view, contemporary approaches tend to try to integrate the two opposite positions. Leadership is claimed to partly depend on innate genetic characteristics and partly depend on experience. Nevertheless, the concept of leadership depends on how each theory defines it, and it may cause studying of slightly different constructs and result in contradictive observations. While researches are investigating the exact parameters of a leader, it is probably more reasonable for practice to concentrate on what is possible to change, such as learning and teaching of how to be a leader.
Dugan, J. P. (2020). The evolving nature of leadership. In Leadership theory: Cultivating critical perspectives (pp. 25–48). John Wiley & Sons.
Osland, J. S. (2017). Global leadership. In Y.Y. Kim (Ed.) The International Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication (pp. 1-6). Wiley Online Library.
Tuncdogan, A., Acar, O. A., & Stam, D. (2017). Individual differences as antecedents of leader behavior: Towards an understanding of multi-level outcomes. Leadership Quarterly, 28(1), 40–64.
Zaccaro, S. J., Green, J. P., Dubrow, S., & Kolze, M. J. (2018). Leader individual differences, situational parameters, and leadership outcomes: A comprehensive review and integration. Leadership Quarterly, 29(1), 2–43.