Are Leaders Born or Made? The Better Question is How to Get More Women to the Top

Susannah Wellford | Oct 9, 2019


I was talking about leadership to a group of successful men the other day, all CEOs and tech superstars, when the conversation turned to whether leaders are born or made.  As someone who spends my life training young women to be political leaders, I clearly believe leaders can be made.  But the group disagreed.  As one man said, “I could take tennis lessons every day for the rest of my life but I still wouldn’t play like Nadal.”  Leadership, like talent, the group agreed, was a gift that some people were born with, but most weren’t.  What bothered me even more was the assumption that being born with the leadership ‘gene’ was all you needed to get to the top.

For most people, however, innate ability is not enough to become a CEO or an elected leader.  Aspiring leaders need sponsors and mentors who will open the doors to power for them and provide them with the opportunities they need to demonstrate their abilities.  If you are born a white man, this path is easier for you.  Extra points if you are born into a family with money and connections.  And white men have a millennia of role models showing them that power looks just like them.

Still today, 80% of leaders in government and in top business roles globally are men, usually white men.  But the world is changing quickly.  Both corporations and governments are beginning to embrace the idea that diverse leaders will strengthen our systems.  So where do we find these new types of leaders?  The same group of men, above, were bemoaning the fact that it’s hard to find diverse leaders to hire, especially people of color and women.  If we believe leaders are born not made, it takes away our imperative to cultivate new types of leadership.  It assumes that leaders will find their own way to the top because they were born to be there.  If we value new types of people in power (which I think most of us do) we need to open new pathways to leadership, through training and by providing opportunity.

I spend my life as CEO of Running Start training young women in the tools they need to have power and influence in life.  Many of these young women come from disadvantaged communities and haven’t had mentors to reassure them that they have what it takes to get to the top. Too often they are told that their dreams are too big and their aspirations too high.   We teach them confidence, hone their skills and show them how to lead at the highest levels, even if they have never seen themselves as leaders before.  Most importantly we connect them to people in power who help them on their path.

We are in an age where people who have traditionally been outside the power structure are beginning to claim their seats at the table.  With the right training and opportunity we will see even more diverse leaders rise to the top.

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