a short research essay by Martha Goodwyn Picinich

Are Leaders Born or Made?

The question of whether leaders are born or made has been subject to rigorous debate, often creating tension as organizations seek effective methods for identifying and developing great leaders.  While it is sensible that specific traits need be present for one to even consider taking on leadership, traits are more of a starting point than an ideal model or definition. It’s hard to imagine a set of traits defining a leader given the wide variety of effective leaders and leadership styles found in diverse organizational settings.

Given the complexity of leadership roles and environments it seems practical to consider leadership as a set of skills and attributes refined and developed over time.  Effective leaders are developed through high-stakes experiences integrated with a learning orientation and access to support and feedback (DeRue & Wellman, 2009; McKenna, Boyd, & Yost, 2007).  

Leaders are Shaped by Powerful Experiences

Leaders are shaped and defined by powerful experiences.  These experiences often involve pressure, complexity, and ambiguity.  The nature of these experiences stretch individuals to the edges of their comfort zones (Avolio & Hannah, 2008; Avolio, Sosik & Berson, 2013; DeRue & Wellman, 2009; McCall, 2010; McKenna & Yost, 2004; McKenna et al., 2007).   

In a 2009 study of organizational leadership development, DeRue and Wellman found a positive relationship between developmental challenge and leadership skill development. Developmental challenges are often found in assignments that offer opportunities for leaders to find new ways to influence diverse people and complex processes.  

Avolio et al. (2013) suggest that a leader’s effectiveness is related to the ability to create new processes and models using knowledge gained from experiences. Activation theory suggests that developmental situations create a high sense of arousal and increased cognitive processing leading to skill development (DeRue & Wellman, 2009). Powerful, challenging experiences develop all areas of core leadership skills – cognitive, interpersonal, business and strategic.

There is a need for caution in employing experiential development methods.  DeRue and Wellman (2009) observed diminishing returns in their research; a point where challenging experiences no longer created skill development due most often to burnout or prior mastery.  Burnout can be mitigated by two important factors that impact the developmental experience – a learning orientation and access to feedback.

Successful Leaders adopt a Learning Orientation

A learning orientation is integral to developing effective leadership expertise.  A learning orientation indicates a willingness to refine and master skills and abilities over a lifetime of intentional practice (DeRue & Wellman, 2009; Dweck, 1986; McCall, 2010; McKenna et al., 2007).  Leaders with a learning and mastery orientation will seek out and enjoy challenges and demonstrate high levels of persistence in the face of setbacks (Dweck, 1986).  

A learning orientation will help leaders stay strong and avoid burnout during developmental challenges.  As Avolio and Hannah (2008) explain it, leaders will more effectively reflect on and make meaning out of events that stimulates understanding of both self and other-development. With a learning orientation, leaders are more likely to attribute failures or setbacks to ineffective strategy rather than ability deficiency, allowing them to make positive, timely adjustments (Avolio & Hannah, 2008; Dweck, 1986).

A learning orientation is necessary to leadership development by experience but it is not alone. There is another critical factor that is necessary to make experiential development powerful – access to valuable feedback from a supportive community.

Access to Valuable Feedback is imperative to Successful and Sustainable Development

According to DeRue and Wellman (2009) leaders need access to critical feedback and support from followers, mentors, peers, and bosses to recognize valuable lessons and important next steps leading to mastery.  

Access to feedback is absolutely critical during challenging experiences as it helps leaders check their assessment and decision processes, keeping mental energy focused on the task at hand and the learning process involved.  A willingness to be ready for the lesson is essential which is precisely why effective leadership takes time to develop. The lesson will be lost on one who is not ready to see or accept it (DeRue & Wellman, 2009).

Through coaching, mentoring and feedback structures, a developing leader has access and support to extract learning from every experience.  Access to feedback is also important to developing self-awareness and can contribute to a better assessment of one’s competence and performance (McKenna & Yost, 2004).

Concluding Thoughts

Coupled with a strong learning orientation and support mechanisms, powerful on the job experiences can shape and mold highly effective organizational leaders – individuals who demonstrate the character, efficacy, and courage to lead even when it means going against others, taking full responsibility, and sacrificing oneself (DeRue & Wellman, 2009; McKenna & Brown, 2011).  

This type of leader is not simply born, instead she is crafted through intentional, mastery-oriented lessons over a lifetime.

Some days I can hardly believe I get to be the one to accompany these amazing humans on this developmental path. It is a privilege and gift, filling my life with joy and purpose. When I help develop a great leader, I know I’m impacting hundreds if not thousands she will encounter through the course of her leadership.


Avolio, B.J., & Hannah, S.T. (2008). Developmental readiness: Accelerating leader development.   Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(4), 331-347.

Avolio, B.J., Sosik, J.J., Jung, D.I., & Berson, Y. (2003).  In W.C. Borman, D.R. Ilgen, & R.J. Klimoski (eds.), Handbook of Psychology, Vol. 12: Industrial and Organizational Psychology.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

DeRue, D.S., & Wellman, N. (2009).  Developing leaders via experience: The role of developmental challenge, learning orientation and feedback availability.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(4), 859-875.

Dweck, C.S. (1986). Motivational Processes Affecting Learning.  American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040-1048.

McCall, M.W. (2010).  Recasting leadership development.  Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 3, 3-19.

McKenna, R.B., Boyd, T.N., & Yost, P.R. (2007).  Learning agility in clergy: Understanding the personal strategies and situational factors that enable pastors to learn from experience. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 35(3), 190-201.

McKenna, R.B., & Brown, T. (2011). Does sacrificial leadership have to hurt? The realities of putting others first.  Organization Development Journal, 29(3), 39-50.

McKenna, R.B., & Yost, P.R. (2004).  The differentiated leader: Specific strategies for handling today’s adverse situations.  Organizational Dynamics, 33(3), 292-306.