Are Leaders Born or Made? In HR, No Consensus

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

April 12 — A new survey highlights the fact that not even HR professionals can agree on whether leadership skills can or should be taught.

Almost four in 10 companies from around the world provide no leadership training, according to a survey of 438 HR professionals, results of which were released April 4 by the McQuaig Institute, a Toronto-based talent assessment company.

About half (49 percent) said their organizations have no formal succession management program, despite barely one-quarter of the respondents thinking their leaders are “very effective.” The opt-in, online survey took place Feb. 1-25, with the U.S. and Canada furnishing 47 percent of the respondents.

“It's easier to train some basic leadership skills at a junior level,” Ian Cameron, managing director of McQuaig, said in an April 12 interview with Bloomberg BNA. That means providing starting- to middle-level managers with training on such things as how to provide constructive feedback to subordinates, do performance management and implement changes using communication skills, said Cameron, who added that he provided leadership training for 11 years before coming to McQuaig.

His opinion largely agreed with that of Mark Murphy, founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based LeadershipIQ. “Everyone can develop some modicum of competency” in basic leadership skills, although most will never be at the level of a Steve Jobs or Richard Branson, he said in a separate April 12 interview with Bloomberg BNA.

The problem is that organizations tend to single out individuals who are good at a particular job, such as engineering or nursing “and promote them to a leadership role” for which they may not be suited and for which the organization frequently doesn't train them, Murphy said.

Employers don't offer leadership training because their senior leaders frequently lack some of the requisite skills themselves, so “it's hard for them to put their hands up and say we need leadership training,” Cameron said, adding that managers' lack of time frequently looms larger than lack of money in explaining why leadership training isn't available.

“Most organizations don't train anywhere near enough,” Murphy said.

Innate Skills?

On the other hand, “I come down firmly on the side that leaders are born—it's an innate set of variables,” Dick Grote, founder of performance management consultancy Grote Consulting Corp. in Frisco, Texas, said in an April 11 interview with Bloomberg BNA. “For someone to be considered a high-potential employee” for a leadership role, he said, that person should have four characteristics:

  • “high intelligence or smarts”;
  • “emotional stability or maturity—being a grown-up”;
  • “drive, or the willingness to put forth discretionary effort beyond the call of duty”; and
  • ambition, “a high aspiration level—the person has to want to move up.”

    Not all high performers fit that description, Grote said. As for innateness, great historical leaders like Winston Churchill “never went to Leadership 101,” he pointed out.

    The truly exceptional leaders do have innate skill, Murphy agreed, comparing it to athletic or musical ability. “With a few years of training” on the piano, he said, “you can get people to be able to play ‘Für Elise,' if not to the Vladimir Horowitz level.” And as for hiring a great leader, “selection is an iffy process,” he noted, and many organizations are “terrible” at it.

    To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at

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