Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” But what is it about human nature that destines some people, like Napoleon, for glory? Is the ability to lead, achieve, and even change the world something that people are born with? Or, is becoming a successful leader something that is acquired over time?
New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologysheds new light on this age-old question. Researchers at the University of Houston, the University of Illinois, and the University of Tübingen in Germany compared personality test results of 1,795 individuals who first completed a personality test in 1960 (at age 16), and then again in 2010 (at age 66).
The scientists examined 10 facets of personality, one of which was leadership. The thought was this: if leaders are, in fact, born, participants’ personality test results at age 16 and 66 should be relatively consistent. However, if leaders are made, participants should, theoretically, exhibit a sizable increase in self-reported leadership over the 50-year time horizon.
To assess the personality dimension of leadership, participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the following statements: (1) “I am the leader in my group,” (2) “I am influential,” (3) “I have held a lot of elected offices,” (4) “People naturally follow my lead,” and (5) “I like to make decisions.”
Here’s what they found. A large majority of participants, 79% to be exact, showed no difference in self-reported leadership across the 50-year time horizon. In other words, almost 80% of people held the same opinion of themselves as a leader at age 16 that they did at age 66. 17% of individuals reported an increase in leadership while 4% reported a decrease.
These numbers may not mean much by themselves, but they speak volumes about the nature of leadership when compared to the other nine personality dimensions tested. It turns out that, of the 10 personality dimensions tested, the leadership dimension was most likely to remain consistent across the lifespan. For instance, the personality traits of social sensitivity, tidiness, self-confidence, and calmness all show less than 55% similitude when comparing participants’ 1960 and 2010 results (and an average increase of 42%). In relation to other personality traits, leadership, it appears, is strikingly resilient to change across the lifespan.
Returning to the question of whether leaders are born or made, this study suggests that the “nativist” argument — that leaders are born, not made — is more likely to be the case. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t multiple paths to becoming a great leader. Perhaps Shakespeare came closest to the truth when he said, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
I write about emerging research in the social sciences and how it can be used to improve human and market outcomes.