Are Great Leaders Born or Made?

Are great leaders born or made?

I’ve been exploring that question my entire adult life. Growing up, I was always told I was a natural leader; and so I was put in leadership positions. But what made me a “natural” leader? How much of it was how I was born vs. how I was raised? Questions like this (related to nature vs. nurture arguments) inevitably lead to a discussion on why it’s “both” and not “either-or”. But it’s worth discussing both sides.

My early life set me up to be a leader

Growing up, my parents were always involved with some community service. They volunteered with the Jaycees and helped organize the local Miss America pageant franchise.  When we started attending church around ninth grade, my parents got immediately involved and started volunteering as greeters. I don’t remember my parents ever teaching me explicitly about leadership or community involvement, but I clearly learned about leadership through proximity to them. I had several leadership opportunities in elementary school, including being captain of the safety patrol and MCing the talent show in 6th grade.

In high school and college, I participated in religious experiences called Chrysalis. ( This is a weekend retreat (although they don’t like the term retreat), where participants experience the love of God at a deep level. I went through the experience first as a participant, then as a volunteer. Through volunteering with several of these events, I learned many lessons in leadership and public speaking. There was no formal training associated with these events, yet I started to develop and hone my own leadership & public speaking skills.  

Reflecting back on that time, two things really stand out related to the question of nature vs. nurture:

  1. I took the initiative to volunteer for these leadership opportunities of my own accord. So clearly, there was something inside me that was primed to seek out leadership positions.
  2. The more repetitions (reps) I got at volunteering, leading, and speaking the better I got.

Having the opportunity to take on leadership and do public speaking was important, but I had to actually raise my hand and do the work. That took a certain amount of self-confidence and courage. It was also very helpful to have parents and other leaders who encouraged me.  My childhood spent watching my parents volunteer and lead primed me for doing the same as I got older. But the encouragement from them and others was crucial to building my own confidence (or in some cases, destroying it). And of course, the more opportunities I took, the better I got, which built my confidence and courage and prompted me to do yet more.

How does my experience inform how I help develop leaders?

As a leader of my family, my work and F3, I have the responsibility to help develop new leaders. To do so there are a few key things I know I need to do.

  • Create opportunities for people to get reps as leaders
  • Encourage people to stretch themselves and grow
  • Turn leadership experiences into learning experiences by encouraging a culture of review and reflection
  1. Creating Opportunities

As my kids get older, my wife and I have been giving them more and more responsibility around the house. They’ve gotten pretty good at knocking out chores, particularly once we tied those to a weekly allowance. I have discovered, however, that my kids are far less interested in me explaining a principle of leadership, than actually doing a chore and gettin paid. So the deliberate and specific instruction of leadership has been challenging. I expect this will get easier as they get older.

Creating leadership opportunities at work is a little harder for me. While I’m technically an executive, I don’t have any direct reports at this time. All the people I lead technically report to someone else. I have to exert my influence indirectly and more softly than I otherwise would. I’ve found I can create opportunities to lead by not just asking for a task to get done, but asking for help in problem solving. The biggest thing that’s helped me is to really push junior staff to broaden their thinking about a subject. If their job is to update numbers on a spreadsheet, ask them to take it a step further – do the numbers look reasonable? If I wasn’t here, how would you check for that? You can tell a lot about a person by asking those kinds of next-step questions. Leadership opportunities are more than putting someone in charge or something. A great place to start is giving them a small chance to think bigger than they normally do.

  1. Encouragement

Words from others can have a profound impact on you. Growing up I never felt like an athlete, and I was never told I was an athlete. Looking back, I clearly was athletic. I played multiple sports before and into junior high, then lettered in tennis in high school. Yet I never saw myself as an athlete until I got into F3 and really started to think about my health and challenge my self-talk. I wish someone in my youth helped me understand that I was an athlete. I think that would have helped me develop healthy habits earlier.

We talk to our kids a lot about self-talk, and about how they can construct their own identity through the way they think and talk to themselves.  Our own internal narrative is the most important factor in our self-confidence.

  1. Creating a culture of review & reflection

In F3, at the end of every workout, we take a few minutes to provide the leader (called the Q in F3 language) with direct, timely feedback regarding how the workout went. The Q is expected to prompt the discussion and kick it off by acknowledging things he could have done better. That creates an environment where guys feel safe to express criticism as well as praise for the Q. This kind of thing should be done everywhere.

The key lies in separating the performance or outcome from the person. A person isn’t a bad leader, but sometimes their performance is bad, or the outcome is bad. Creating a culture of review and reflection provides a framework for a leader to think critically about their performance, learn from mistakes, and grow as a leader.


All of us are born with the capacity to lead. Some of us are blessed with frequent, early opportunities to lead, and hence develop early as leaders.  Leadership is a skill that can be learned by everyone.