Leadership: Nature or Nurture?

Leadership: Nature or Nurture? by Dr. Greg Waddell

Photo from the Microsoft Office Online Images Collection

Are people born with leadership capability or do they acquire it? This is one of the great debates among leadership experts and among leaders themselves. This is important because it affects our approach to leadership development. Do we look for the “signs” of the gift of leadership or do we simply begin teaching it and watch to see who rises to the task? The answer is that it’s a combination of both nature and nurture.

For some people, exercising leadership is as natural as breathing. These are the gifted leaders, the ones to whom God has given a special capacity to influence people for the good of the group. Whether they use that gift for good or evil is another matter. We are fully capable of ignoring God’s purpose for the gifts He gives us and using them instead to serve our egotistical needs and aspirations. This, of course, explains why some people are able to move throngs of people toward their own self-destruction.

But the leadership-as-gift idea does not preclude the possibility that some people can learn leadership. These are the people for whom leadership is like a hidden capacity or seed waiting to sprout. You might still say that it is a gift but one that has not yet been discovered. For these people, it takes a wise leader to scout out and recognize the signs of potential leadership and then commit to helping that leadership to rise to the surface and grow. So, when a leader thinks he or she sees this potential, what should they do to nurture it?

  1. Teach your disciples to lead themselves. The lack of self-discipline may be what’s keeping that individual from exercising their innate gift for leadership. Help them to lay out a plan for self-improvement.
  2. Give them an opportunity to lead. Learning leadership is like learning to play the piano, through practice. Put them in charge of some project or team and watch how they perform. Coach them but don’t take over for them. Accept the fact that they will make mistakes and help them to learn from those mistakes.
  3. Give them an opportunity to serve. This is especially true for those who seem to excel in acquiring leadership skills. One of the best tests to see whether their heart is in the right place is to see whether they are willing to serve. A desire and willingness to serve is a key element of ethical leadership.
  4. Ask your potential leader about the needs of their followers. Help them develop a keen sense of empathy that enables them to see life through the eyes of their followers and respond accordingly.
  5. Help them develop a network of connections with other leaders. You may want to set up a formal mentoring relationship. But that’s not necessary. What is important is that they learn to seek out those contacts so they can learn by observing the leadership of others.
  6. Teach them the leadership approach to failure. Teach them how to leverage mistakes and turn them into learning experiences.

Some leadership skills are innate and others are acquired from life experiences. It is a combination of nature and nurture. It’s not for everyone. Some people are content with following and that’s OK. But not all potential leaders are exercising their leadership. For a variety of reasons, they need another leader to invest some time and effort into helping them nurture their leadership potential.

What do you think? Is leadership a question of nature or nurture? What are some other practical ways that you have found for helping others develop their leadership potential?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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