Leadership Traits – Nature or Nurture?

I have been thinking a lot about leadership lately and I have been fortunate enough to work for some amazing leaders – two that come to mind specifically who have shaped my career, urged me to take wise chances and made me a better person, in addition to a better employee.  I also had an recent college graduate ask me what it took to be effective in a leadership role.  I really had to think about it and my conclusions are contained in this blog.  There are loads of books written on this very subject, so I will add my observations to the wealth of research and opinions out there.

1. Process Information Efficiently – all of the leaders that I have witnessed in action are extremely smart. And it isn’t specifically

Image Source: http://www.agemattersclinic.com/UW-Dementia-Website.php

Image Source: http://www.agemattersclinic.com/UW-Dementia-Website.php

book-smart or street-smart, but they all have the ability to process and assimilate information very quickly.  They can take two seemingly unrelated data points and see the connective tissue that everyone else misses.  They can thoughtfully consider a catastrophic situation and figure out a way to manage through it.  They can ponder a decision and see multiple ways that it might impact future events.  It is really remarkable to watch, because an effective leader is always thinking, they don’t take anything at face-value, they ask insightful questions and often, they truly are the smartest person in the room.

2. Excellent Ability to Recall – if you pay attention to the effective leaders that you have come across in your career, most have an excellent memory.  Most leaders can recall numbers – $2.5M in revenue for that product, a 41.5% margin, a $25.89 stock price – and they can pull these numbers into a conversation at a crucial time.  This is not to suggest that they know everything and never refer back to notes or get data from their teams, but most leaders can recall the relevant financial information for their business and can use that data when they are processing information very quickly (see above).  They can also recall conversations, decisions, attendees and dates.  This ability to recollect pertinent information sets true leaders apart and enables them to make decisions and move forward more quickly than the masses who must look up the facts before they can proceed.

3. Inspirational – this trait is truly a differentiator. I have worked for leaders who are smart and have great memories but have no ability to inspire and they will always be limited in what they can achieve.  The great leaders that I have encountered in my own career inspire me and everyone around them on a daily basis.  The inspiration is genuine too.  They truly want me to learn more, to stretch, to grow and they inspire me to try harder, to be more thoughtful and more deliberate in my own leadership style.  A great leader’s inspirational nature usually comes across with them being charismatic, good public speakers, strong interpersonal communicators and caring individuals.  I suppose there are a number of terms that could be used to capture this “soft skill” of leadership, but inspirational encompasses it for me.

Identifying these three traits forces me to ponder the question in the title of this blog.  Can a leader be made (nurture) or are great leaders simply born (nature)?  To my thinking, it is a bit of both – but you can’t nurture what wasn’t there to begin with. I believe that a good leader must be born intelligent, with a strong memory and an inspirational demeanor and then those traits can be enhanced and cultivated over time.  But without the core ingredients, I think it would be hard to rise to a level of true leadership distinction.

What do you think?  Can someone without these core skills be molded into a leader?  Are there other key attributes that are missing?  I would love to hear your thoughts and observations.


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