Can leadership skills be learned?

Can leadership skills be learned?

LEADERSHIP is often seen as an innate quality a select few individuals possess. However, the question arises: can leadership skills be learned?

While some argue that leadership is a natural talent, others believe it can be developed through learning and practice. This article explores the evidence to support or refute the claim. By examining the evidence and considering different perspectives, we can better understand the potential for learning and cultivating effective leadership skills.

Leadership skills inherited,learned?

Intelligence and personality are the two major factors that shape leadership qualities, and they are all largely hereditary.

This study examined the impact of genetic factors and personality on leadership role occupancy among male twins. The researchers compared identical twins, who share 100% of their genetic background, with fraternal twins, who share only 50%.

The findings revealed that approximately 30% of the variance in leadership role occupancy could be attributed to genetic factors, while non-shared environmental factors accounted for the remaining variance.

Genetic influences also contributed to personality traits associated with leadership, such as social potency and achievement. Moreover, the study indicated a connection between the genetic factors influencing personality variables and the genetic influence on leadership role occupancy.

However, whether these personality variables partially mediate the relationship between genetics and leadership remains unclear. These results suggest that genetics and personality traits significantly determine individuals' likelihood of assuming leadership positions.  Another study shows that there may be a partially innate predisposition for individuals to occupy leadership roles. The research utilised twin design methods and data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to estimate that approximately 24% of leadership role occupancy can be attributed to heritability.

Although specific genes or neurological processes were not identified, association analysis on available genetic markers revealed an association between leadership role occupancy and a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) called rs4950, which is located on a neuronal acetylcholine receptor gene (CHRNB3). This association was further validated in an independent sample from the Framingham Heart Study. This study is significant as it is the first to identify a specific genotype linked to the inclination to hold a leadership position.  These findings suggest that both genetic factors and environmental influences contribute to an individual's likelihood of assuming a leadership role.

Another study used a five-factor model to study personality and leadership. Analysing 222 correlations from 73 samples, the study found that Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness were consistently correlated with leadership. Extraversion showed the strongest association across different study settings and leadership criteria. Additionally, more than 90% of individual correlations were positive, indicating that these traits generally contribute to leadership qualities.

The overall multiple correlation of 0,48 between the five-factor model and leadership supports the leader trait perspective and emphasises the significance of considering personality traits in understanding effective leadership. A meta-analysis study examined the relationship between intelligence and leadership by aggregating findings from 151 independent samples in 96 sources.  The results showed a modest positive correlation between intelligence and leadership, with a corrected correlation of 0,21 (uncorrected for range restriction) and 0,27 (corrected for range restriction).

Perceptual measures of intelligence were found to have stronger correlations with leadership than paper-and-pencil measures.  Intelligence was equally correlated with both objective and perceptual measures of leadership. 

The leader's stress level and directiveness were identified as moderators of the intelligence-leadership relationship. Overall, these findings suggest that the relationship between intelligence and leadership is not as strong as previously believed, supporting both implicit leadership theory and cognitive theories of leadership.

Coaching is a widely used management tool, but research on its effectiveness has been lacking. Existing studies on coaching have focused on various processes and outcome measures without a strong theoretical foundation.  A meta-analysis was conducted to examine the effectiveness of coaching in an organisational context.

The results showed that coaching significantly affects performance/skills, well-being, coping, work attitudes, and goal-directed self-regulation.

Effect sizes ranged from g = 0,43 for coping to g = 0,74 for goal-directed self-regulation, indicating that coaching is an effective intervention overall.  These findings highlight the potential benefits of implementing organisational coaching programmes to enhance individual-level outcomes such as leadership.

Is it possible to develop leadership skills?

In this article, they share evidence that shows that, to some extent, leadership skills can be developed. Extensive scientific research on coaching and development programmes has provided key insights into their effectiveness.  Regardless of the duration and format of the coaching programme, such as in-person, virtual, or hybrid, meta-analytic data consistently show that coaching significantly improves the effectiveness of leaders.  It not only enhances their skills but also improves their emotional competence.

Additionally, multisource feedback, also known as 360-degree feedback, and personality-based assessments can greatly enhance the outcomes of coaching interventions.

A 360-degree feedback process involves gathering feedback from multiple sources, including peers, subordinates, and supervisors. This comprehensive feedback helps leaders gain a holistic understanding of their strengths and areas for improvement.

On the other hand, personality assessments provide leaders with insights into their behavioural tendencies, motivations, and preferences.

By combining these approaches, leaders can gain valuable insights into how others perceive them and understand why they exhibit certain behaviours or face specific challenges.

This combined approach leads to a more targeted and effective coaching experience, ultimately enhancing leaders' skills, emotional competence, and overall effectiveness.


In conclusion, the debate over whether leadership skills are inherited or learned is complex.

 While it is true that intelligence and personality, which play a significant role in shaping leadership qualities, are largely hereditary, it would be inaccurate to assert that leadership skills are solely determined by genetics.

The earlier study proves that genetic factors contribute to approximately 30% of the variance in leadership role occupancy. However, non-shared environmental factors also play a crucial role in shaping leadership abilities.

Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker and managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and HR consulting firm. Phone +263 24 248 1 946-48/ 2290 0276, cell number +263 772 356 361 or e-mail: [email protected] or visit


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