Nature and Nurture in Leadership

As Commencement approaches, Harvard likes to think it has helped to produce another class of leaders. But are leaders born or made? Is nature or nurture more important? I address these questions in my recent book, The Powers to Lead.

How often have you heard someone say that a political candidate looks (or does not look) like a leader? A tall handsome person enters a room, draws attention, and “looks like a leader.” Various studies have shown that tall men are often favored, and corporate CEOs are taller than average. Moreover, tall men tend to earn more than shorter men. Other things being equal, an inch of height is worth nearly $800 a year in salary. But that may simply tell us about the stereotypes of what corporate boards think a CEO should look like and not that taller men are better leaders. Some of the most powerful leaders in history, such as Napoleon, Stalin, and Deng Hsiao Ping were little over five feet tall.

Physical traits such as physique, intellectual traits such as IQ, and personality traits such as extroversion have been extensively examined by researchers, but with poor explanatory results. Tests have shown there is no leadership gene. While studies might find a certain trait to be significant, there always seems to be considerable evidence that fails to confirm that trait’s importance. Context is often more important than traits. The athletic child who is the natural leader on the playground may lose that dominant position when the group returns to a well structured classroom. For example, in January 1940, Winston Churchill was regarded as a failed politician, but after the British defeat in France, he was seen as a charismatic leader who could rally the nation. Churchill’s traits did not change in 1940; the situation did.

The traits-centered approach has not vanished from modern studies of leadership but it has been broadened and made more flexible. Traits have come to be seen as consistent patterns of personality rather than inherited characteristics. This definition mixes nature and nurture, and means that “traits” can to some extent be learned rather than merely inherited. We talk about leaders being more energetic, more risk-taking, more optimistic, more persuasive, and more empathetic than other people, but these traits are affected partly by a leader’s genetic makeup and partly by the environments in which the traits were learned and developed.

A nice experiment recently demonstrated the interaction between nature and nurture. A group of employers were asked to hire workers who had been ranked by their looks. If the employers saw only the resumes, beauty had no impact on hiring. Surprisingly, however, when telephone interviews were included in the process, beautiful people did better even though unseen by the employers. A lifetime of social reinforcement based on their genetic looks may have encoded into their voice patterns a tone of confidence that could be projected over the phone. Nature and nurture became thoroughly intertwined.

Genetics and biology matter in human leadership, but they do not determine it in the way that the traditional heroic approach to leadership suggests. The “Big Man” type of leadership works well in societies based on networks of tribal cultures which rely on personal and family honor and loyalty, but are not well adapted for coping with today’s complex information based world. Institutional constraints such as constitutions and impartial legal systems circumscribe such heroic figures. Societies that rest on heroic leaders are not able to develop the civil society and broad social capital that are necessary for leading in today’s networked world. Modern leadership turns out to be less about who you are, or how you were born than about what you have learned and what you do as part of a group. Nature and nurture intertwine, but nurture is much more important in the modern world than the heroic paradigm gives it credit for. Rather than think of your fellow graduates in terms of a particular type of heroic individual—male or female—look instead for indications that they (and you) have developed the judgment to broaden your bandwidth and cope with the wide range of new situations you are bound to encounter. That contextual intelligence will be the key to effective leadership.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, is author of The Powers to Lead.