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Why leaders are made, not born

Most people hedge their bets with the question of nature vs nurture, but nurture is by far the most important factor when it comes to being a strong business leader, explains Rob Pegley.

Strong Business Leaders

Most writers hedge their bets with the age-old question of nature versus nurture, and end with the conclusion that “it’s a bit of both”. I’m not going to do that. Well, maybe a tiny bit. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that nurture is by far the most important factor when it comes to being a strong business leader.

Until a decade ago, I was in the born-not-made camp. Not just for leadership, but for, well, everything. I was happy to agree with the ‘you can’t teach that’ way of thinking. Then I read a book by Matthew Syed called Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.

Syed has gone on to write some excellent business thought leadership books such as Rebel Ideas and Black Box Thinking, but his debut book Bounce was predominantly about sports stars being created rather than born to greatness. And it was based on his own compelling experiences as a sportsman.

Syed was the English table tennis number one for many years, competing at the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games multiple times. After his parents bought a table tennis table for the garage for a bit of fun, Syed and his brother Andrew became absolutely obsessed as young boys and would play incessantly.

Quite by chance, England’s best table tennis coach at the time, Peter Charters, was a teacher at the Syed brothers’ school, and he started a local table tennis club among the neighbourhood boys. By the time Syed became a national champion, along with his brother, five of the top 10 players in England came from within a mile radius of Charters’ Reading home. All members of that same club.

There were more English ranked table tennis players living on his street than in the rest of the UK combined.

The genes on Silverdale Road, Reading were not the reason for this.

The book is an excellent read and cites many other examples from David Beckham, to the Polgár sisters, hothoused by their father to become number one and two female chess players in the world. Having said that, Syed does acknowledge that the basic building blocks for anyone are going to be genetic. For example, studies have shown that Black runners are by far the best sprinters in the world due to their fast twitch muscle fibres, born of West African descent.

Syed’s overwhelming contention though, is that what makes one of those sprinters better than another, is practise. In fact 10,000 purposeful hours of practice is identified as the requirement.

You may be asking what on earth 10,000 hours of playing table tennis in a Reading ping-pong club has to do with running a global organisation.

The comparison I want to make is that, yes, leaders need the basic building block of IQ for example, which has some basis in genetics (although, not entirely, according to studies); but plenty of people have high IQs and don’t go on to be good leaders.

Moreover it is environment and experiences that shape us as people, and business experiences and environment that refine us as business leaders.

Some people may have a small genetic predisposition to becoming the boss of a company, but nurture is the key. How someone is raised as a child, and what they are exposed to in life and work. Why else would people send kids to decent schools if they weren’t doing some good?

Your views on all of this incidentally may have some unconscious bias, and may be driven by your political leanings. It is a leftist notion that environment is more important than birth – that social conditioning is crucial. Traditionally, those on the right have more of a Darwinian view on things.

Many studies and philosophies over the years have gone either way. Freud blamed the parents, and Aristotle was in agreement – albeit 2,200 years earlier. Plato and Descartes are more in the innatism camp, and believe experience simply unearths the knowledge already residing in our brains as a result of DNA.

I believe that my personal experiences over the past 50 years have shaped me far more as a person, as an employee, as a father, and previously as a business leader, than anything innate in me since birth. I believe that family, friends, events and my environment have changed me radically.

I’m not alone. Plenty of leaders such as Colin Powell, or one of the world’s greatest sports coach Vince Lombardi, believe that we “learn from trial and error, and from experience”. That overcoming adversity and challenge shapes us. That empathy and vulnerability can be learned traits. That mentors who come into our life can help us develop.

If you want a topical example of current times, look at the various politicians around the world. None of them were born for the situation they currently find themselves in. They are learning on the job in a unique situation and it will change them all as leaders forever. It’s also worth pointing out that they are all different in their approaches and have different personalities. Experience in that situation and the chance circumstance that thrust them into it will have far more of an effect on their future leadership than anything innate in them.

The good news for business in this theory is that management and leadership development is worthwhile and important. Money is not being wasted on training employees to be better leaders. You do not pop out of a genetic mould labelled ‘leader’, but rather the best leaders absorb, study and are changed by experience and education.

The good news for all of us, is that we have the ability to train ourselves to be leaders. It is not a question of your DNA, but rather your determination to better yourself and learn how to lead.

Application over talent, and actions over potential.

Read next: What business leaders can learn from sports coaches

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