Human Resources Management
Are leaders born or made?


There are many leadership theories within the literature, and that these theories can sometimes seemed contradicting with each other. To explain, as discussed in Mullins (2005), the different theories of leadership can be categorised into these groups: traits approach to leadership, leadership behaviours, leadership styles, contingency theory of leadership, group approach to leadership, transformational leadership as well as inspirational leadership. In this essay, two of the popular and yet seemingly contrasting theories of leadership will be explained, compared, discussed and evaluated. Then, the implications of these theories will also be outlined.

The Two Approaches to Leadership

The Trait Approach to Leadership

The trait approach is one of the early theories in study leadership in a systematic manner. It is often also known as the ‘great man’ theory of leadership, as the theory focuses on how personal or individual characteristics lead to successful or effective leadership process. For that, some of the traits believed to be essential for leadership effectiveness include: proactive, tenacity, network building, care for the employees (Shin, 1998), ambitious, energetic, persistent, motivated, honest, confidence, good cognitive ability, excellent knowledge or insights on business (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991), and emotional maturity (Ali, Nisar & Raza, 2011). In the wider context of leadership theory, this approach to leadership focuses on how the individual’s traits are related or affect leadership effectiveness or performance. It is a theory that focuses on the leader himself or herself, to explain outcomes of leadership. Under such a paradigm, it is possible to select the future effective leader by observing the traits of the respective candidates. Some candidates with certain traits will be more effective. In a way, leaders are born (i.e., when someone is born with certain traits, they are bound to be effective leader, as compared to others with such traits).

Behavioural Approach to Leadership

Rather than focusing on how issues such as traits or personality affect leadership outcomes or process, the behavioural approach to leadership focus on the actions of the leaders, in explaining leadership effectiveness or performance. It is assumed under this paradigm that it is what a leader does that affect the leadership outcomes. Such an approach is often perceived as more practical, as by focusing on the behaviours, it would be less sensitive to discuss about how a leader is responsible for the leadership outcomes. Furthermore, behaviours are observable and hence measurable. Within the literature, some of the behaviours that are believed to lead to leadership effectiveness include: allow job rotation in workplace, empowerment, willing to delegate, allow participation from employees (Psychogios & Garev, 2012; Dewettinck & Maaike, 2011), behave in an emotional intelligence manner (Vrba, 2007), as so on. Under this approach to leadership, it is possible to conduct assessment on the behaviours of a leader, to judge the leadership style of that particular leader as well as in trying to explain how certain behaviours lead to successful leadership process (Chaudhari & Dhar, 2006). This particular paradigm of leadership is an attempt to solve problems due to the trait approach to leadership, whereby under the trait approach to leadership, the issues such as personality of a person will determine leadership effectiveness; and that means only certain people with certain personality can become a better leader (i.e., discriminating others that do not share similar personality). This approach thereby is a behaviourism approach to leadership, so to point the way on how leadership process can be enhanced, through changing the behaviours of a leader (but not the personality). In such an approach, even someone without the relevant ‘personality’ can also become an effective and successful leader – as long as he do something that can lead to leadership effectiveness (i.e., it is about the behaviours that determine the outcomes, and that behaviours can be managed, changed or altered). In that way, leader is made, not born – because it is possible for someone to go through training and development to become an effective leader (regardless of his personal traits).

Are leaders born or made?

As such, there are two seemingly contradicting theories of leadership. The trait approach to leadership support the notion that leaders are born. Contrary to that, behavioural approach support the notion that leaders are made. A critical evaluation on these contradicting theories will be presented in the next section.

Critical Evaluation

There are some differences on the paradigm or lens guiding the formulation of the trait versus behavioural approach to leadership. Under the trait approach, the paradigm is that common observation seemed to suggest that successful leaders tend to share similar traits, thereby motivating scholars to investigate more on how certain traits actually lead to better leadership outcomes. The paradigm of behavioural approach however is about the need to develop leadership theory that is practical. The paradigm is that by managing the antecedents (i.e., behaviours), it is possible to affect the outcomes (leadership effectiveness).

It is crucial to aware that both the theories actually attracted many academic studies, and researches on these theories are extensive (as can be seen from the many studies available on topic such as ‘leadership traits’, ‘leadership behaviours’ and ‘leadership style’).

Before trying to reconcile the dichotomies of the two approaches to leadership, some merits and limitations of these respective approaches to leadership will firstly be explained and provided.

First of all, both the approaches to leadership have their respective merits. For the trait approach to leadership, one of the significant strengths of the approach is that there are many empirical evidences supporting the notion that traits can indeed affect the perceptions of other people on a leader, as well as leadership effectiveness; such as in: Chen & Chen (2008), Robie, Brown & Bly (2008), Madsen & Musto (2004), Gehring (2007), Heyi, Na & Dan (2007), Obschonka, Silbereisen & Schmitt-Rodermund (2012), Malik, Hussain, Ali & Ali (2011), as well as Nana, Jackson & Burch (2010). Indeed, the evidences seemed to be stronger on how certain destructive trait can lead to negative outcomes, according to research by Schaubroeck, Walumbwa, Ganster & Kepes (2007). Other than that, such theory is intuitively logical, because it is widely observed that successful leader seemed to share certain traits.

In a similar manner, the behavioural approach to leadership also has some merits. First of all, there are indeed many empirical evidences supporting the notion that certain behaviours are more effective, as compared to other behaviours. These studies include: Gregersen, Vincent-Höper & Nienhaus (2014), Dewettinck & Maaike (2011), Psychogios & Garev (2012) as well as Feruzan, Campbell, McCartney & Gooding (2013). However, the most significant merits of such theory is that it provide concreate ways to enhance leadership process, as scholars even developed measurement instrument to assess the behaviours of a leader, so that through such instrument, the areas that a leader is weak on, can be identify, and hence corrected and improved (Littrell, 2013). For that, there are instrument available that offer opportunities for leaders to self-correct (Manning & Robertson, 2011). Aside from that, such paradigm of leadership is also empowering or deliberating, as it indicates that anyone can be a successful or effective leader, despite differences of personality or traits. In a way, it is practical and suitable for any potential leader to refer to this theory to develop their leadership skills, through cultivating the right behaviours.

Anyway, it is crucial to aware that the two theories have their respective weaknesses. For the trait approach to leadership, it is also widely acknowledged that certain traits alone do not guarantee leadership success (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991). For example, hard work is still important for leadership success, even someone may possess all the charismatic related traits (Toegel & Barsoux, 2012). Worse, there are findings that impacts of traits on leadership outcomes is found to be different – in the west versus in the east (Ping, Mujtaba, Whetten & Wei, 2012), and that suggest that certain traits may be only effective in certain situation. This is not to mention also the idea that probably valid that even someone does not possess certain traits, doesn’t mean that someone can never become a successful leader.

Then the trait approach ignores cultural differences (in affecting leadership process) but that in actual can be critical in affecting leadership effectiveness (Casimir & Waldman, 2007). Yet, such approach also ignores impacts due to gender differences (Lansford, Clements, Falzon, Aish & Rogers, 2010). For instance, Women can be a successful leader as well, although they might not possess some of these masculine traits. Other than that, there is also critique on potential measurement issues related to studies examining about how traits affect leadership (Lewis-Beck & Nadeau, 2010). Last but not least, some other critique on the theory is about the issues on the ‘dark side’ leader traits, such as Narcissism, hubris, dominance, and Machiavellianism (Judge, Piccolo & Kosalka, 2009).

In a similar manner, there are several; limitations or weaknesses pertaining to the behavioural approach to leadership that worth mentioning. For example, certain behaviours (e.g., nonverbal leadership behaviours) may not be easily researched or identified (Schyns & Mohr, 2004). Yet, similar to the case of trait approach to leadership, the behavioural approach to leadership also ignore issues on cultural differences (Littrell, 2013), on how cultural context may demand different leader behaviours to be effective. Aside from that, impacts due to gender differences are also ignored, as gender differences may lead to differences of behaviours – but that doesn’t means that we need to force certain behaviours on managers (Oshagbemi & Gill, 2003). Besides, issues of age on leadership behaviours are also ignored, as younger and older managers tend to exhibit different behaviours (Oshagbemi, 2004). In addition to that, impacts of differences due to business nature and organisational differences are also not being addressed directly, but that is crucial as studies discovered that managers might need to behave differently in the different companies or industries (Andersen & Hansson, 2011). Perhaps more importantly, the behavioural approach to leadership may not be able to explain differences of leadership performance, because there are evidences that many different leadership behaviours can be equally effective. One example is that evidences by Ali, Nisar & Raza (2011) pointing that both people and task oriented leadership styles are equally effective.

Anyway, the two approaches both ignore the complexities of leadership effectiveness. To explain, there are many other significant factors that can affect leadership outcomes (e.g., economic issues, political turbulence, industry nature, followers, institutional, organisational culture, or unforeseen circumstance); and that how these variables may moderate the ‘traits – leadership performance’ or ‘behaviours – leadership performance’ relationship are yet to be fully understood (Lee & Kamarul, 2009).

Then, back to the issue if the two theories are contradicting each other, there are views that the two theories actually are not so contradicting in nature, as there are evidences that traits can influence the behaviours (Ali, Nisar & Raza, 2011). In a way, the traits will affect behaviours, and yet the behaviours in turn will affect outcomes of leadership. As long as someone acknowledge the fact that sometimes leaders are born, while in other times leaders are made; there is no conflict between the two perspectives to leadership. In other words, both traits and behaviours are one of the many determinants of leadership outcomes; and that a leader can be both born and made (or more realistically, a born leader must still be trained to become a truly effective leader).

Nevertheless, it is noted that the traits approach to leadership leave little room for application, but the behavioural approach is more motivating and indeed it will pinpoint what are the actions (i.e., behaviours to be adopted) for leadership effectiveness (Toegel & Barsoux, 2012; Oshagbemi & Gill, 2003). In other words, the behavioural approach to leadership tends to be much more practical and applicable. In other words, the behavioural approach is more like the self-help approach (i.e., how to work on oneself) to leadership, for someone to learn about the skills and behaviours to improve the outcomes of leadership.


Overall, the discussion provides great insights on how the two theories bring different perspectives, insights and values to the field of study on leadership. The implication from the discussion herein is that it informs us that the real situation is complex, and no one theory able to explain every situation in real life. Both theories bring different insights and value. It would be crucial to stay observant and use common sense to explain leadership performance, based on the situations. Yet, in many cases, someone still has the opportunity to enhance leadership performance, by pursuing certain leadership behaviours that might lead to more effective leadership outcomes.



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