Are Great Leaders Born or Made?

Is talent innate or acquired over time? The debate rages on! This is an old argument going back to a longstanding debate in psychology about nature versus nurture.

Some argue that nature, the body (and the mind) inherited through genetics, makes someone who they are. When you hear people talking about natural talent, they are using the nature side of the debate. Others believe that it is nurture, which are the environmental influences after conception (the experiences one has). When you hear about successful people having a good or troubled upbringing, they are referencing the nurture side of the debate.

Who’s right? It’s probably a little bit of both, but scholars disagree on how much. Most psychology classes (both high school and undergraduate) teach that there is about a 50/50 influence of both nature and nurture. However, others argue it’s not so clear. These people acknowledge both sides as being important factors, but favor one side over the other. Regardless of the percentage, what’s important is that both play an important role in our lives. The more we know, the better we can apply that information to our own life. 

Carol S. Dweck takes this debate to a deeper level and argues that it's how we view our talents that matters most. In her book, Mindset, she discusses two types of outlooks people can have, and according to her research, how you view your skills has a significant impact on your performance.

But first, what are these mindsets? A fixed mindset is someone who believes that their ability comes from the role of the dice at birth and it is fixed in stone, so there is little (or nothing) they can do to improve. A growth mindset is someone who believes they can learn from their experiences and improve on their natural talent. 

Dweck argues that whether or not your genetics play a role in your talents, if you view your skills as being fixed, you may be at a disadvantage.  

Let’s explore some of the pros and cons of these two mindsets.


The Fixed Mindset

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone.

Why is this good?

  1. It gives people a direction to follow based on what they are good at.

Why is this bad?

  1. It creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over and…
  2. People with this mindset greatly misestimate their performance and their ability.
  3. Failure defines the person, and because they believe their ability is fixed, when they fail they cannot recover.
  4. If your life is flawed, then you are flawed. Therefore, many people with a fixed mindset are more prone to running away from their problems.
  5. People with this mindset often see life as a competition and avoid engaging with others in fear of meeting people who are more talented than they are.
  6. People with this mindset have a hard time forgiving others.
  7. People with this mindset often get caught up in others' flaws.
  8. People with this mindset are quick to assign blame, and they usually blame a character flaw.
  9. Everything is about outcomes, so people with this mindset are quick to give up on things if they are not better than average the first time around.
  10. Dweck’s studies have found that people with a fixed mindset have higher levels of depression.


The Growth Mindset

Believing you can change how intelligent you are.

Why is this good?

  1. It allows people to thrive during challenging times in their lives.
  2. It allows people to find value in what they are doing, regardless of the outcome.
  3. Research has found that grades increase with this kind of mindset because students believe work ethic is more important than a having disadvantaged math or science genetics. 
  4. People are more open to change.
  5. It allows people to see prejudice as someone else’s opinion, and they can confront it with their confidence and abilities intact.
  6. It allows people to see value in everyone, not just a select few.
  7. It allows people to be more honest with their opinions and open with their communication.
  8. It allows people to accept mistakes and failures, and view them as learning opportunities.
  9. It allows people to accept that the world is not perfect, and that’s okay.
  10. It allows people to rise above blame by trying to understand a situation.

Why is this bad?

  1. Chirp...chirp...chirp...


Adopting a growth mindset has many advantages, unfortunately many businesses and schools are set up in a way where it's easy to get stuck in a fixed mindset. I still catch myself thinking with a fixed mindset and have to remind myself to be more open to new experiences rather than getting down because I have a hard time not being the best at something new. 

So, are leaders born or made? Probably a little bit of both, but having a growth mindset helps. Here are some examples of different leaders with opposing mindsets: 

Jeffrey Skilling, CEO of Enron, Fixed Mindset. 

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple and Pixar, Growth Mindset

John McEnroe, World Champion Tennis Player, Fixed Mindset

Michael Jordan, World Champion Basketball Player, Growth Mindset

If you approach the world with the mindset that you were born great, the whole world is against you, judging you rather than supporting you and helping you grow. Besides, I’d rather work for my rewards than be given credit for being born with the right genetics. Just think, every time you did something honorable you would have to lower your head and say, "well, it's not really anything I did on my own, I owe it all to the good breeding in my past and a strong winning family line." 


This blog post was inspired by Carol S. Dweck’s book Mindset. For more information, check out the Mindset website and read our notes.

Andrew J. Wilt 
SEI Junior Consultant 
Apprenticeship Program