Are great leaders born or made?

It's tempting to see strong leadership as an immutable set of traits. But it has as much to do with organisational context, than it does individual competence.

by James Blackmore-Wright
Last Updated: 25 Sep 2023

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As many leadership scholars argue, particularly contingency theorists, leadership is not independent of context. The typology of organisational cultures by Charles Handy is helpful to locate different leadership concepts and theories within different parts of public organisations, which deal with different tasks and are characterised by different cultures.

In his famous model of organisational culture, Handy distinguishes between four types of organisational culture: the power culture, role culture, task culture, and the person or support culture. Trait theories which emphasise specific leadership attributes and behaviours are tied to power culture, where power is held by just a few individuals. The call for charismatic leaders is typically loudest in situations of crises, emergencies or breakdown. Role culture is more associated with routine tasks such as processing tax payments, where staff have clearly defined responsibilities within a hierarchical structure.

This requires transactional leadership, which focuses on increasing the efficiency of established routines and procedures and is more concerned with following existing rules than with making changes to the structure of the organisation. Highly political tasks may be associated with either a power culture with a strong leader or a task culture, which favours teamwork with experts where there is no single source of power. This requires system leadership, so that political leaders and policy advisers collaborate across organisational boundaries. Similarly, tasks which involve the development and dissemination of innovation in public sector organisations need either a task or person culture.

A person culture describes a culture where individuals happen to work for the same organisation but do not have a collective sense of being part of an organisation. As Jacob Torfing stresses, “enhancing public sector innovation requires a combination of adaptive and pragmatic leadership”. Adaptive leadership determines which activities to maintain and which ones to change. Pragmatic leadership focuses on learning by doing in innovation processes.

Born to be a leader?

The earliest writers on leadership often studied the lives of ‘Great Men’ to try to determine what attributes enabled them to be so effective. This approach became known as trait theory.

You have no doubt read research that demonstrates that although demographic attributes may still have some relevance, more mutable characteristics such as task competence and interpersonal skills are as important. And over time, leadership theorists started to note that often a leader who appeared to have many of the ‘traits’ of leadership could fail in specific contexts or circumstances.

The focus of trait theory is to find people who ‘have what it takes to be a leader’. The belief is that leaders are born, not made, and that personality and social, physical and intellectual traits are what differentiate leaders from non-leaders.

One significant challenge to researchers and theorists who have written about the traits of ‘successful’ leaders, is the question about whether ‘traits’ are immutable. Will the same traits be seen as producing effective leadership in different countries and cultures? And across different races and genders?

The early writers about trait theory were universally writing about white male leaders. It wasn’t until Robert House and associated researchers undertook their GLOBE studies in the late 1990s, that attention was focused on whether notions of leadership were culturally determined.

The GLOBE researchers studied leadership worldwide. They defined leadership as “...the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organisations of which they are members.”

Conceived in 1991 by Robert J. House of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the GLOBE Project’s international team collected data from 17,300 middle managers in 951 organisations (the research sample included some public sector organisations).

The GLOBE research project clearly shows that different cultures have different expectations of leadership, and as a result expect leaders to display different traits. The relevance of this research is that we should not assume that our own notions of what effective leadership looks like will be shared by people from different countries.

Leaders vs managers

There is one final challenge to the idea that there are a set of immutable leadership traits that all managers need if they are going to be successful. There is evidence that most of us expect different things from very senior managers than from ‘near’ managers or our immediate supervisors. A seminal study by Shamir (1995) provided evidence of differences in the way in which ‘distant’ leaders are perceived, in contrast to perceptions of ‘close’ or ‘nearby’ leaders. Exploration of the implications of this distinction has been the focus of studies of the relationship between leader behaviour and leader-subordinate distance.

Most leadership research on the new transformational paradigm has been based on data collected by researchers interviewing chief executives and senior managers, rather than data collected directly from those they are responsible for managing. So in the main, these studies have focussed on observations of top managers in organisations, rather than middle and lower-level managers. This contrasts with earlier leadership research, such as the Ohio State studies of the 1950s and 1960s, which focused on the styles of lower-level managers and supervisors. It is important to distinguish between:

  • The models of leadership which have evolved from data collected because of researchers interviewing top managers.
  • Studies based on eliciting the perceptions of managers, at all levels, describing attributes of managers at the top level (‘distant’ leadership).
  • Studies based on eliciting the perceptions of managers, at all levels, describing their immediate line manager/supervisor (‘close’ or ‘nearby’ leadership). The distinction between ‘distant’ and ‘close/nearby’ leadership is particularly important.

The dynamics of the influencing process differ depending on how “close” or “distant” followers are from their leader. In other words, the types of leader behaviours that can affect followers and how those behaviours are evaluated by followers depend on how “close” or “distant” followers are from leaders. Briefly, we define leader distance as the effect of leader–follower physical distance, perceived social distance, and perceived interaction frequency. Leaders can appear to be very distant to followers if leaders are physically distant from followers, maximise their status and power differentials by virtue of their elevated social position, and maintain infrequent contact with followers.

This strand of thinking about leadership leads to a series of questions:

  • Can both “distant” and “close” leaders influence followers
  • Can followers identify with and trust both types of leaders?
  • What causes distance between leaders and followers?
  • Is distance beneficial or detrimental to leader outcomes?
  • Can we explain the linkages of “close” and “distant” leadership to individual and group level outcomes?

Shamir’s research suggests that we are more likely to expect distant leaders to be ‘visionary and charismatic’, for example. But we do not tend to look for this in nearby leaders. Instead, we expect near leaders to exhibit traits such as ‘individualised concern’ – a concern for us as individuals, as well as an expectation that near leaders will help us to become ‘the best that we can be’. The research suggests that leader effectiveness is contingent on matching the degree of closeness that followers expect of the leader in various contexts.

Dr James Blackmore-Wright is assistant professor of strategy and leadership at the University of Birmingham, where he is programme director for the online MSc in international management.

Illustration created using pictures from Getty Images