Are Good Leaders Born or Trained?

Most of us have worked with different types of leaders - from those who possess self-awareness, garner credibility and focus on relationship-building to those who make working in their teams more challenging. Then, there are those whose leadership skills are somewhere in the middle of this continuum. 

In this article:

What makes a good leader?

According to this article, good leaders take responsibility for their leadership, which means that they lead with their followers in mind. From the followers' perspectives, good leaders build trust and bring positive energy and willingness to listen. In addition, they ensure that people can count on them and encourage employees to believe in a better future. 

On the other hand, bad leadership that results in a low psychosocial safety climate (PSC) is associated with an increased risk for new major depression symptoms (1). 

What can make a big difference between bad, good, and great leaders? Are great leaders born this way? Is there anything we can (and should) do to join the cutting-edge team of leaders? These questions revolve around the same debate - are leaders born or trained?

Leaders are trained 

Luckily, the answer to the questions mentioned above is very promising, meaning that leadership skills can be improved. Though some people may already possess many skills and qualities that make a great leader, they can always grow and hone their leadership ability. For example, in their study of identical and fraternal twins, Arvey et al. (2) revealed that genetic factors could account for 30% of the variance in leadership role occupancy. This means that most skills associated with good leadership can be honed and developed. Similarly, Keating et al. (3) showed that students report significant gains in leadership skills, leadership efficacy, and motivation to lead throughout an introduction to leadership theory class. On the other hand, this study also showed that students lacking leadership self-efficacy might not be "ready" to engage in the processes of leadership. These results provide important implications for educators - they should attend to students' sense of self-efficacy before focusing on skill acquisition.

Developing self-efficacy

Simply put, self-efficacy is a personal belief in one's capability to organise and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances. According to experts (4, 5), it is not enough for individuals to possess the requisite knowledge and skills to perform a task; they also have to believe that they can successfully perform the required behaviour (s) under typical and, importantly, under challenging circumstances. As mentioned earlier, one should possess high self-efficacy to develop good leadership skills. 

Try out these two research-based tips for helping students develop self-efficacy:

  • Set clear goals. When students set clear and specific goals or are given a reasonable goal by a teacher, they are more motivated to perform than those given no goals. This means that those who set SMART goals are likely to experience self-efficacy for achieving these goals and are more persistent in achieving them.
  • Provide honest and explicit feedbackWith explicit feedback on the growth of their knowledge and skills, students will likely be able to try to change or regulate their behaviour (5). This feedback should be specific and systematic.

Compare these two types of feedback:

Well done! You did a great job in this exercise on communication skills! 


Well done! You correctly applied the rephrasing technique in this exercise and formulated questions that kept the communication going.

Which one would you use to point out the skills the student demonstrated?


Even though many executives are focused on selecting leaders with the "right stuff," expecting those leaders' natural abilities to mean organisational success (read more here), research and practice tell us differently - leadership skills can be improved.

Key takeaways:

  • Focus on learning and development rather than "innate skills".
  • Read about and research topics on good leadership skills.
  • Always keep in mind that improvement is possible and appreciated. 
  • Set clear goals and provide explicit feedback to help future leaders develop self-efficacy.


Suggested reading on the topic:

(1) Zadow AJ, Dollard MF, Dormann C, et al. (2020). Predicting new major depression symptoms from long working hours, psychosocial safety climate and work engagement: a population-based cohort study. BMJ Open 2021;11:e044133. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-044133

(2) Richard D. Arvey, Maria Rotundo, Wendy Johnson, Zhen Zhang, Matt McGue (2006). The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic and personality factors. The Leadership Quarterly, 17 (1), 1-20.

(3) Kari Keating, David Rosch, Lisa Burgoon (2014). Developmental Readiness for Leadership: The Differential Effects of Leadership Courses on Creating "Ready, Willing, and Able" Leaders. The Journal of Leadership Education, 14 (3).

4) Bandura A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

(5) Artino A. R., Jr (2012). Academic self-efficacy: from educational theory to instructional practice. Perspectives on medical education1(2), 76–85.