Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

[Technical Note: If you find that your particular web browser does not allow you to view our articles for a full-text read, please simply select another browser and enjoy.]

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Born or Made

Born or Made

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Well, which is it … Are leaders born or made? 

First, a working definition: “In our view, leadership involves persuading other people to set aside for a period of time their individual concerns and to pursue a common goal that is important for the responsibilities and welfare of a group” (Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan, 1994, p. 493). 

Let’s go with that one and explore the question.

Scottish Author Thomas Carlyle, in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1888) popularized a notion in the mid-1800’s that a “Great Man” theory existed, in which someone’s personal traits defined [his] leadership. Beyond that, those traits helped to direct the course of human events for those who followed (Burkey & Widger, 2008). 

Others countered that historical events have instead positioned people into opportunities for effective leadership, stating, “Innate traits, in and of themselves, did not a leader make.”  Further questions have included, “What deeper factors define leadership?”  Are these one’s traits, one’s skills, one’s style, or are they dependent upon the situation that one encounters (Northouse, 2004)? 

Again … more simply, “Are leaders born or made?” 

Some have dismissed this as an oversimplification, answering, “YES,” and moving on.  I think, however, that the question is worthy. With this week’s five-minute read, I think we can get a better handle on it.  

Buckingham and Coffman (1999) shared the parable of a scorpion and a frog, in which a frog was hesitant to honor a scorpion’s request to carry him across a pond, fearing he would be stung. Despite assurances to the contrary, once upon the frog’s back, the scorpion stung him, noting, “It’s in my nature” (p. 56). 

The authors used this story to discuss the innate nature of who we are.  They posed that we cannot expect professional qualities from others that they simply do not have.

Is this accurate, as it would seem in part an argument for leadership as born, wouldn’t it? 

The authors go further, saying, “Skills, knowledge, and talents are distinct elements of a person’s performance,” and “The distinction among the three is that skills and knowledge can easily be taught, whereas talent cannot” (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999, p. 83). 


Talents, Buckingham and Coffman (1999) noted, are the recurring pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of a person over time, “… an accident of birth, ‘the clash of chromosomes,’ as the ethologist Robert Ardrey described them’” (p. 93).  Talents are transferable generally, they concluded, clarifying that skills and knowledge “… are often situation specific” (p. 88).

Could “talent” then be the part of leadership that is born and further, could “knowledge” and “skills” be the parts that are made?  I believe the answer lies in how a leader’s personality factors in to all this, as it seems a related and important construct.

Five-factor theories of personality are a part of mainstream scholarship. These factors help explain the underlying categories that serve to describe people – those of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability -- the latter referred to, at times, as Neuroticism (described in the research regarding job performance of Barrick & Mount, 1991). The acronym OCEAN is often used to describe the five-factor model.

With all this, the question becomes, “Is the OCEAN inside us made, or is it born?” Is it more in line with our nature, as with the scorpion and the frog, or more in line with our nurture, as in things taught or developed?

Note the work of Dr. Taibi Kahler (2008), which highlights how factors of personality traits differ in strength and demonstrable energy, depending on how overall personality structure is arranged at birth and develops over a lifetime. Kahler (2008) actually presents a SIX-factor model for use in therapy, communication, and education.  It has been validated through construct (Kahler, n.d.) and more recently in its instrumentation (Ampaw, Donlan, & Gilbert, 2012).

In Kahler’s model, persons are born with one predominating personality type. By age seven, five other personality types layer themselves in to a complete structure (720 different combinations), each type influencing one’s overall personality and one’s leadership potential in various contexts.

Kahler’s six-factor model fits nicely in a five-factor world in that each of Kahler’s six personality types has its own, naturally occurring levels of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability (traits, if you will).  That, of course, is my interpretation, which I would love to have Dr. Kahler evaluate.

Where Kahler’s model has even greater sophistication is in answering the question of how we can build strength in our own leadership areas that show a deficit, whether these are talents, skills, or knowledge [i.e. things BOTH born and made].

Kahler demonstrates how this takes place not by debating the question of whether leaders are born or made; instead, he theorizes that when people provide for their own psychological needs to be met (i.e. when people are “ok”), they can more readily access and energize those aspects of personality that might not be as strong … yet still, those needed for leadership.

In short, Kahler might suggest that we are all born of nature with six personality types useful in our leadership; however, we are more capable of accessing those areas of lesser energy if we make use of nurture to provide for our own needs in a way that works for us.

Upon shoulders of theory rests my answer …



Ampaw, F. D., Gilbert, M. B., & Donlan, R. A. (2012, August). Verifying the validity and reliability of the Personality Pattern Inventory. Paper presented at the 4th International Congress on Process Communication, Vienna, Austria.

Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44(1), 1 – 26.

Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Burkey, R. & Widger, D. (2008). On heroes, hero-worship, and the heroic in history.  A Project Gutenberg E-Book, retrieved from

Hogan, R., Curphy, G. J., & Hogan, J. (1994). What we know about leadership. American Psychologist, 49(6), 493-504.

Kahler, T. (2008). The process therapy model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.

Kahler Communications, Inc. (n. d.). Personality Pattern Inventory validation procedures. Little Rock, AR: Author.

Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership theory and practice (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.


For comments and conversation, please consider contacting Dr. Ryan Donlan at the Indiana State University at (812) 237-8624 or at

1 comment:

  1. Please....

    To think that God takes time to anoint people with the gift of leadership (born with it), can only be supported by those who believe they have been touched.

    It seems that some may take a less divine approach and perhaps claim that a few have the DNA necessary to recognize leadership opportunities and then proceed to execute that role with success. Which suggests everyone else lacking this protein is designated as a follower. Let's sort them at birth and track them, maybe check again at 3rd grade to be sure we don't have any late bloomers. But after that, it may be too late to orient them to provide us with the type of leadership we want.

    I have this same issue with those who are "born to be artists". It seems some people are able to draw better than others, thus when recognized in school with this talent the teacher will build on this talent, further separating the 'artist' from others who seem to lack the ability to create art - defined as producing artwork which reflects realism. Well, much of what is in art museums from the 20th century does not glorify realism. The ability to draw things so they look real is something we learn to respect. Which means it is a cultural artifact, nothing sacred. The kids unable to draw things that look real are artists too. They can express reality, summon emotions, or begin a conversation with their own style of art. To value realism over the abstract is to regress to the preferences of those who do not understand art.

    Now take that dynamic to the idea of identifying and nurturing leaders. Those who understand leadership could not possibly believe it is limited to a few special souls.

    We seem to think that when a child exhibits certain behaviors of leadership (or maybe their parents have leadership roles) that they must have been touched, or have some kind of talent or head start to becoming an effective leader. They can draw things that look real. The idea of effective leadership in this vein is simply a cultural artifact.

    To glorify a 'born to be a leader' attitude is no more intelligent than believing Norman Rockwell is a better artist than Jackson Pollock. Please....