How much of being a leader is experience? Answer: 69 per cent

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 14:11

No debate in the world of corporate leadership is quite as passionate or widespread as the question of nature vs nurture - are leaders simply the product of good genes, or are they made by their experiences?

This discussion is showing no signs of slowing down, and for many the answer will lie somewhere in the middle, in part because it can be so hard to separate these two. However, recent research has been able to put a number on the contribution of experience: 69 per cent.

Experiences the leading indicator of leadership success

Research published by the executive training course database IEDP has revealed how genetics and leadership potential work together to produce a leader. While about a third (31 per cent) is down to a person's genetic disposition, the vast majority of their success as a leader comes from the experiences that led them to this position.

"Leadership is an exceptionally complex behavioural phenomenon"

The study calculated this by comparing the leadership skills of identical and fraternal twins and their experiences in leadership roles. As a result, the study was able to determine how much of the leadership potential could be attributed to shared genetics.

Professor Richard Arvey from the National University of Singapore who published the report, also pointed out how difficult it was to attribute any one factor to a leader's success.

"Leadership is an exceptionally complex behavioural phenomenon that most likely involves a set of genes interacting with each other and the environment and such complexity will be difficult to pin down with any degree of specificity," he explained.

The research also suggested that companies and existing leaders need to be looking more closely at the potential leaders within their organisations and nurturing them through options like staff training programs. This doesn't even have to be in a corporate environment - individuals with the right background will often find themselves drawn to informal leadership roles - something companies need to be on the lookout for.

Staff with leadership potential will often be looking for ways to take these first steps.

Staff with leadership potential will often be looking for ways to take these first steps.

How do you think leaders are made?

Clearly people in leadership roles need a combination of both experiences and genetics in order to succeed in leadership roles. However, while this debate between nature and nurture might seem purely academic, how people think about leadership can actually affect the business decisions they make.

This was underscored by research from the Center for Creative Leadership, which polled leading CEOs to find their personal opinions on the nature-vs-nurture debate and how this informed their training decisions.

Those who valued experiences were much more likely to see leadership as a collaborative effort

According to the results, 52.4 per cent of surveyed CEOs reported that leaders are made, compared to 19 per cent who put it down to genetics. The remaining 28 per cent put leadership success down to a combination of both.

What's really interesting in this study though is how these assumptions affect people's notion of leadership. When asked to describe what a leader looks like, those who thought success was genetic focused on qualities that were what the authors termed "leader-focused". This group also placed more importance on hierarchy, status and formality.

On the other hand, those who valued experiences were much more likely to see leadership as a collaborative effort that involved mentoring, inspiring others and showing integrity. This group were also far more likely to attribute success to experiences and leadership training, rather than personality traits.

The authors cautioned that these subconscious biases will also affect areas like staff training programs, depending on how a decision-maker believes leaders are made. Perhaps the main takeaway for leaders isn't just to think about where they sit on the nature-vs-nurture debate, but also how this might be affecting their decision-making.