Leadership – a question of nature or nurture?

This month, I’m involved in helping run a summer school in Oxford, the Adaptation Academy, for senior staff involved in climate adaptation projects. My strand embraces the human dimension – self-development, leadership, politics, and communication. Following a leadership tour of the City of Oxford, one of the participants posted this question in the Academy’s collaboration space:

“I have heard about someone being a ‘leader by birth or from birth’. The argument here is that some people may not notice that they are actually made to lead but that just happens. I want to get Wilson’s comment on this.”

I realise that this is largely subjective, and that it’s a classic discussion point, but for the record here’s my reply:

“Thanks, it’s an important discussion point.

You may remember that, at one point in the sessions, I mentioned three dimensions – Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes. To start with, I see the ability to be a leader as a consequence of our Attitudes. Someone is already being a leader when they hone their Skills. And Knowledge can be obtained by anyone with a sufficiently trained mind. So your question (from my perspective) is whether our Attitudes are formed genetically (or in the womb) or once we are born?

My personal opinion has always been that the vast majority of our personality is shaped by our life experience – much of that in our infancy, childhood and adolescence. This is because I am ‘classically’ trained – a Freudian. However, I am having to review this in my own mind as there are a growing number of studies that show that there are apparently inherited personality traits. Personally, I am critical of some of the studies and sceptical of their conclusions, but I know I need to keep a flexible mind on it.

Personality is something that can be observed. I tend to use a Jungian approach – which many people have encountered through the Myers Briggs Types Indicator or the Kiersey Temperament Sorter.

In this sense, it is a reflection of our attitudes and our coping mechanisms (our ways of handling challenges to our emotional status quo). Most of us predominantly draw on a relatively small number of coping mechanisms and do so consistently. I have seen no evidence that our preferences for these are genetic in origin, but I have witnessed many people who can identify quite clearly where in their life their particular coping mechanisms originate from.

The exercise that I introduced – the idea of a time-line showing key events and their impact – is a powerful one to start the thinking around this.

If this is something that particularly concerns you then I’m very happy to pick it up in a one-to-one.

Best wishes

Would anyone care to add anything?


  1. Hi Graham,

    Interesting post! ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s great to see that you’re open to reworking your opinions when new evidence comes in. I try to do this myself – even if it’s rather painful at times! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    You write: “I have seen no evidence that our preferences for these are genetic in origin”

    I’ve read that the genetic component in the ‘Big 5’ personality measure is significant (in a book by two of its pioneers), and presume it would be the same for Myers-Briggs type.

    Have you seen anything that shows otherwise?


    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

  2. Hello Matthew

    I’d be interested in the reference you mention.

    Most studies of the genetic element in the past have been based around studies of twins but for all sorts of reasons methodologically they are very hard to pin down with any degree of accuracy. Psychometric tests aren’t necessarily measures of anything let alone personality and as most are commercial there are often vested interests at play trying to validate the model or the instrument.

    The interesting area that is emerging is establishing the relationship between specific genes and a particular trait. So far, I believe, work has focused on clinically defined personality disorders, such as autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and so on.

    In the context of leadership, I’d be rather worried if we got to the point where such people could be bred for, though I know that this is something commercial donation (sperm and egg) organisations have considered in the past.

    Lets’ watch this space!


  3. It was the main Macrae and Costa book (name forgotten right now) that mentioned the large genetic contribution to the ‘Big 5’ (aka NEO-PI; ie Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). It’s the most studied and validated personality measure, I think.

    Interestingly, the Openness dimension correlates with Prof Torbert’s leadership maturity stages.

    I’m intrigued by Baron-Cohen’s explanation for rising autism, in ‘assortative mating’ between high ‘Systematisers’. A very Darwinian explnation. If it turns out to be true, it could have all manner of ramifications…


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