It’s a myth, but you hear it everywhere: “So and so is a ‘born leader,’” a person so richly endowed with smarts and charisma that he or she seems like a walking, talking billboard for genetic predestination — i.e. nature over nurture.
But if leaders are truly born and not made, why do so many star performers wind up puzzled, disappointed and derailed in the corporate pipeline? There are people who, from early in their careers, outperform at each step of personal and professional development. Then, one day, they’re stunned to realize they’ve bumped hard against a ceiling.
The answer is, as with a lot of clichés, the “born leader” idea has an element of truth but is not gospel. Genetics is hardly determinative. The reality in the work world is that top leaders emerge from a stew of candidates who might be described as “naturals,” people who grade out at superior intelligence and demonstrated ability of some important kind. But if you’re going to sift the best leadership bets from such groups, you have to venture beyond the testable realm of nature into the murkier world, where nature and nurture mix.
Research on tens of thousands of leaders at all levels shows that to predict the success of a leadership prospect more accurately, it’s necessary to find areas where the variance among candidates is greatest. In the real world, beyond first-level leadership roles, there isn’t much variance in pure cognitive ability among candidates for promotion to the next level — until you get to the top executive levels, where cognitive ability is a differentiator. Most senior executives are among the brightest out there. But even for them, cognitive ability lacks the statistically predictive power of other factors.
So, where do you find significant levels of variance among leadership prospects that can increase the odds of making the best choice for success at the next level?
The answer is in the sum of one’s personality, skills and experience. People without the requisite cognitive powers or personality characteristics tend to get weeded out of the high-potential cohort early on. In higher-level leadership roles, though, other personality characteristics become important, and those with greater learned skills and more of the right kinds of experiences are more likely to end up in the key jobs.
Personality itself is pretty hard-wired early in life, but some people can be taught to manage theirs in ways that are needed to fit the job in question. That’s what most executive coaching is all about. It’s often not about the substance of accounting or supply chain or engineering — it’s about helping people overcome some of their natural tendencies (e.g. helping the leader who is not very accepting of others’ ideas to be more collaborative, helping an executive who is not very insightful about others to be a better influencer or coach or helping someone become strategic who is naturally more into details and not as quick to see the bigger picture).
Beyond how people are hard-wired, it’s important to consider how they develop. Skills and experience are key. The best leaders develop more sheer knowledge of their function and industry and more effective work skills such as negotiating and crisis management, project management, innovation, ability to motivate others, ability to work in cross-cultural teams, etc. Looking at these characteristics together over time can increase the odds that you identify the most capable leaders.
Companies should begin exposing their high-potential employees early in their careers to “developmentally potent experiences.” Twenty-six categories of these experiences have been studied at Personnel Decisions International, including leading new-product development, piloting a startup, managing through a downturn or working in management overseas. The more leaders are exposed to these challenging experiences, the faster they progress and move up.
Additionally, on the topic of “high-potential employees,” it’s a good idea to keep the door open to that group and have it swing both ways. After all, early potential is not always realized. Some people have all the brains and personality qualities you could want in a leader but somehow lack the ability to capitalize on their gifts.
Likewise, others with only modest horsepower and potential early on can become outstanding leaders by developing the right kinds of skills and experience to compensate for their natural limitations. Lesson: Keep monitoring.
Predicting who will be the strongest leaders is an inexact process that evolves over time. But considering a blend of natural hard-wiring and developed skills and experience will maximize your odds of identifying the best talent — those most likely to drive your success.
Dave Heine, Ph.D., is the executive vice president of Personnel Decisions International. He can be reached at email@example.com.