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Study Finds Leadership is Mostly Learned

Study Finds Leadership is Mostly Learned

It seems that not a day passes without a cry for better leadership in government, business, or arenas like the NFL.

Often the question boils down to whether leadership can be taught, or if traits of successfully leadership are hard-wired. A new University of Illinois study supports the idea that leaders are made, not born, and that leadership development follows a specific progression.

According to University of Illinois professors Doctors Kari Keating, David Rosch, and Lisa Burgoon, past research suggests that leadership is 30 percent genetic and 70 percent a result of lessons learned.

In the study, the professors suggest a more efficient pathway to leadership development.

“In only 15 weeks in our introductory class, students reported significant gains in three important components of leadership: self-efficacy, or confidence in their ability to lead; skills; and motivation to lead,” said Keating.

While gaining leadership skills requires personal growth, the new study shows that teaching leadership development is a science.

“It’s a three-legged stool: we call it being ready, willing, and able,” said Rosch.

“Students first become ready to learn about being a leader; then they become willing to learn the skills necessary to practice leadership; and finally they’re able to lead because they have the skills and the motivation to do it.”

“You can’t really move on to the other legs of the stool until you’ve achieved a certain amount of this readiness,” he said.

Even when students are unsure of their leadership capabilities, they can make great improvements toward being a leader during the 15 weeks of training.

“It’s like a math class. You’re not ready to do calculus if you don’t know the basics of algebra,” he noted.

“This shows us we need to work on readiness so students can make the most of advanced leadership courses.”

Students who come into the introductory class with leadership readiness saying, “I’ve got this, I’m a leader” have a different learning experience. They become willing to lead people even when it’s not a big resume builder, Keating said.

Researchers believe leadership involves more than being placed in a leadership role.

“Just as a year in a cave doesn’t make you a geologist, being senior class president doesn’t make you a leader,” Rosch said.

“The definition we use in the course is that leadership is an individual influencing a group of people toward a common goal. So how do you influence people? You can lead through your interactions, your relationships, your communication, the way you express thanks, your ethics,” he said.

“Leadership isn’t done in a vacuum. It’s done with others,” Keating added.

During the class, students are required to complete 10 to 12 self-assessments to learn where their own strengths and weaknesses as a leader lie.

By the end of the semester, they may say: “I don’t do any of this relationship stuff. I’m mainly authoritative in the way I lead. Maybe I need to alter what I’m doing so our team can get better results,” she said.

Rosch said every semester a dozen students come back to him from job interviews in which they advanced because they were able to demonstrate and talk about leadership.

He added that academic advisers are beginning to recommend leadership courses to students who aren’t in the leadership major or minor.

Source: href=””>University of Illinois

Study Finds Leadership is Mostly Learned

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Study Finds Leadership is Mostly Learned. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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