Leadership: It’s a 50-50 Deal

by Jennifer Miller on March 16, 2010

in Business Management, Leadership

The “are leaders born or made?” debate. Said I wasn’t going to go there, but it’s just too irresistible.  A couple of weeks ago on the HR Happy Hour, we had a discussion on this very issue. The Twitter backchannel was ablaze with people debating the topic. Personally, I grow weary of the debate because it sets up an either/or position that isn’t very productive. More on that in a moment. 

What’s compelling me to get sucked back into the discussion? When a leading authority in HR weighs in on “leaders— born or made?” I take note.  That’s what happened this morning when I saw a retweet by Phil McCreight featuring the First Friday Book Synopsis blog interview with Dave Ulrich. A Professor of Business Administration at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Ulrich is the author of over 20 books on HR, talent management, competency development and learning. I’ve followed his work for years and admire how he blends his research with actual practice.

Referencing Ulrich’s book The Leadership Code,  interviewer Bob Morris asks Ulrich about whether there’s a “DNA code” for leadership, thus setting up the “are leaders born or made?” question.

Ulrich’s response:

The research on this issue is fairly conclusive: 50/50. We have innate predispositions that affect who we are and what we do (nature) but we can learn and develop and grow (nurture). I am predisposed to being an introvert, but have learned that in teaching I need to become an extrovert to be effective.

So if people’s leadership potential is evenly split between what they’re born with and what they choose to develop, how come we’re still having this debate?  As with many debates, I believe it comes down to words and the meaning we ascribe to them.  In this case, I think the conflicting opinions stems in large part from how people are defining leadership. To some people, leadership is that “something” that a lucky few just simply have.  It’s hardwired and definitely not something you can learn in a training session. Others view leadership in a more comprehensive way—it’s a both/and type thing, consisting of innate traits and teachable techniques. 

Personally, I’m one of the “comprehensive” folks— when I say “leadership”, I’m referring to both the innate and the learnable.  And of course, when there are varying definitions rolling around, we have room for disagreement.

For the sake of clarity, I offer two sides of the “comprehensive” leadership coin:

Side one: Leadership.  At its core, leadership is the ability to attract followers.  It’s that simple.  One can attract followers to further a noble cause, or to create an army to destroy an entire civilization.  In the everyday workplace context, leaders are often seen as people who are driven, charismatic, and persuasive. Yes, these are traits that a person was born with to varying degrees of intensity.

Side two: Management. This is another aspect to leadership that sometimes gets partitioned off into a different category, somehow separate from “leadership”.  This is the more operational side of workplace leadership: planning, organizing, delegating, coaching.  These functions are important as well, and shouldn’t be discounted. Too often, during discussions on leadership, I see scoffing at the “management” side of things.  In my opinion, that’s a mistake.  True, at the very top of an organization, it’s critical to have a passionate, focused, inspirational leader who can rally the masses towards an outcome that produces value for a constituency. And maybe there are just a select few who are wired for that role.

However, the reality is, there are a whole lot more leader/managers out there who need to do both functions.  They need to lead and they need to manage. They don’t have the luxury of delegating the “administrivia” to someone else to handle.  In these days of flat organizational hierarchies, they are the administrators as well as the motivational speakers.

Which brings me back to the “either/or” format of questions. 

  • Leaders: born or made?
  • What’s more important: leadership or management? 

When it comes to meaningful discussion, let’s do away with this polarizing structure.  Leave the opposing positions to the debate team.  For those of us interested in developing leaders, we need all the viewpoints we can get. If in fact, leadership is a two-sided coin, we need both sides to achieve the full value of the currency.  Otherwise, it’s just a shiny piece of metal.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Katy March 16, 2010 at 7:00 am

I for one am glad you got sucked back into this discussion because you’ve made a great point! Leadership and management are both important aspects of organizational success. I wrote a post on this a while ago but it’s well worth repeating. Organizations need both management and leadership to be great! Well said Jennifer!

Jennifer March 16, 2010 at 8:14 am


Thanks for stopping by The People Equation. As you point out, this is NOT a new topic. Far from it. For some reason, though, “Leadership or Management” continues to capture our attention; my hope was to shift the focus from either/or to both/and.

Steve Browne March 18, 2010 at 8:23 am

Love that you took this on Jennifer !! It continues to amaze me that people try to “take sides” vs. developing leadership from those who are “naturals” or those that truly do develop over time.

I would rather people try to define what they see as effective leadership that is leaving a positive impact on the area they’re leading. I also tend to hang with those folks who I sense truly are leading others. It’s invigorating and you can learn from them.

There is room for both leadership and management. We need more people to approach things from an “integrated” standpoint vs. a standpoint of what isn’t being done !!

Thanks for the great insight as usual !!

Jennifer March 18, 2010 at 10:51 am


We appear to share similar perspectives– let’s focus on making something positive happen by fostering learning approach. I agree there’s room for both and I really like your framing of the idea as “integrating” the two rather than pitting them against one another. Hmmm….

davidburkus March 19, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Not the biggest fan of trait theories. They may have up to 50% responsibilities, but you can’t train someone on traits. Besides, I’ve been to a lot of hospitals and often heard “It’s a Boy” or “It’s a Girl” echoing through the delivery ward. I’ve never heard “It’s a leader!”

Jennifer March 20, 2010 at 1:55 pm


So, are you saying the 50.50 split is inaccurate? What would you offer up?

Wally Bock March 22, 2010 at 5:31 pm

As much as I respect Dave Ulrich and his work, I have to disagree with that quote on several points.

First, there is no research or collection of research that yields anything like that level of certainty on the importance of different factors in leadership performance. It may seem like using numbers is good, but, in fact, what it gives us is the Illusion of False Concreteness.

Second, there are no “innate” predispositions that have much to do with leadership. People may show up in the workplace with certain parts of their personality fixed, but that fixing doesn’t happen until twenty to twenty-five years or so.

We all emerge from young adulthood with our personalities essentially fixed for life. At that point there are some things that are easier for use to do and others that are hard. For leadership three things it’s good to have coming into full adulthood are

Getting enjoyment from helping others succeed.
Being willing to talk to other people about behavior or performance.
Being willing to make decisions.

If those things don’t come naturally, you can still become an effective leader, but you will have to work pretty hard at it.

Jennifer March 27, 2010 at 10:29 am

Thanks for stopping by The People Equation. My apologies for the delayed response; my blog was rendered inoperable by technical difficulties this week.

Your point about the implied concreteness of Ulrich’s statement is a good one. When I read the term 50/50 I didn’t take it literally. Rather, I interpreted that statement to mean this: there are a variety of factors that influence one’s leadership abilities. In my opinion, it’s a split between what can be taught and what (as you point out) the typical adult presents when becoming a leader for the first time.

Is the split actually 50/50? Who knows? It’s possible Ulrich supplied supporting during the interview that was edited out. So we’ve no way to know how closely the research he references lines up with that balance.

To me, rather than argue the finer points of what part is innate or what part is teachable, I prefer to focus on finding those areas in which people *can* improve and working with them to devise a plan to help them do so.

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