Are Leaders Made or Born?

Ah, the age-old question of nature vs. nurture, applied to leadership.  Well, let’s end the suspense right here – of course leadership skills can be developed; there’s no such thing as a “born leader”.  At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it – there wouldn’t be much of a leadership development industry if the conventional wisdom said we were wasting our time helping leaders work on their game!

But don’t take my word for it.  One of the most popular Fortune articles in the last several years was a cover story titled “What It Takes to Be Great.”  Senior Editor Geoff Colvin offered new evidence that top performers in any field–from Tiger Woods and Winston Churchill to Warren Buffett and Jack Welch–are not determined by their inborn talents.  Greatness doesn’t come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades.  Turns out there is a pretty good body of research that says the key to greatness is hours and hours of practice.  It also matters how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress, and how you learn from your mistakes. (Malcolm Gladwell also plowed this ground in his 2008 book, Outliers, and like Colvin, subscribes to the 10,000 hour rule – that true greatness requires up to 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, no matter the field of endeavor).

Last year, Colvin expanded his article into a book, with much more scientific background and real-world examples.  In the book, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Colvin proposes that business and leadership skills – negotiating, strategy, decision-making, all of it, really – obey the principles that lead to greatness, so that anyone can master them with the right amount of practice.  His premise is that innate “talent” is a misnomer – its hard work that gets people to the top of their profession.  While this may be an over-simplification (could I really be a professional golfer on a par with Tiger Woods if I put in as much practice time as he did?), it is inspiring in a way.  It certainly reinforces the notion that we can all get better at whatever it is we’re trying to do, if we just apply ourselves.

Talent is Overrated is a great read – Colin is a gifted writer, and the research makes the book credible and leaves you with the impression that this practice thing is real.  Henry Ford famously said, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Colvin concurs.  He writes: “it would be tragically constraining for anyone to lack sufficient self-confidence because what the evidence shouts most loudly is striking, liberating news: great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.”

Here’s to practice, and to working our way to greatness!