Are Leaders Born or Made? Let’s ask Bobby Fischer

Are Leaders Born or Made?

This is such an interesting question. And believe it or not it pops up in many domains. The question of prodigies arise in every discipline. Take Bobby Fischer in chess, for example, who in the same year became the US champion and recorded the so-called Game of the Century vs. Donald Byrne, which is still considered one of the most remarkable games of chess of all time. And he did this before he was 13. Is it possible other people share this same propensity and talent towards leadership? Or are leaders trained and tested. Let’s give this question a go!

As a general rule, leaders and leadership skills are trained and developed for success. Leadership requires a multitude of skills including emotional intelligence, resilience, a tolerance for risk, and a voracious appetite for continued learning. While some people may be born with a natural inclination towards these individual skills, anyone can cultivate and develop these essential leadership skills.

If you have had a curiosity for the the answer to the question are leadership a matter of nature versus nurture, look no further.

The Nature versus Nurture Conundrum

Psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and theologians have debated for centuries whether human behavior is a matter of nature or nurture. Early on in this debate arose the notion of “tabula rasa” or “blank slate” which was the belief that all people were born as blank slates prepared to be programmed by the culture, religion, or ethos they were born into. As our understanding of human nature progressed, we gained more and more evidence this was simply not the case. But, it also wasn’t the case either!

Turns out humanity is a mixture of both nature and nurture in all domains and disciplines. To what extent our skills, tendencies, and talents are nature versus nurture is unclear and it may vary wildly from individual to individual. But we do know this. All skills are learnable. In her book, “Everything is Figureoutable”, author Marie Forleo tackles this notion head on and challenges this idea that we are all stuck with the skills and aptitudes we are born with.

What Makes a Great Chess Player (And Leader?)

You can break down chess into certain skills which combine, like chemistry, to form a great player. A chess player needs to have patience, spatial vision, pattern recognition, intuition, ability to calculate numerous positions, resilience, drive, and a hunger for success. Literally all of these skills and attributes are teachable. They boil down to practice and mindset.

Likewise, leadership boils down to several key skills and traits. In fact, you can read about them in our article the 10 Most Important Skills of Leadership and also How to Develop Your Leadership Skills. There are thousands of skills which can be used to be a good leader, and synergizing them in some combination is where the magic happens.

So how did Bobby Fischer become the US chess Champion at age 13 and capture the imagination of the world? Here is the flip side of the coin and where the nature aspect of things come in. Fischer was born with a propensity in several skills which make a good chess player. Fischer had a voracious appetite for learning, an obsessive personality, and was unbelievably creative. Also, he was an absolutely fearsome competitor, even at a young age.

“I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.”

~Bobby Fischer~

As a side note, I am not a mental health professional, but if I had to guess he also likely had ADHD, of which “hyperfocus” is a haul mark. People afflicted with ADHD can focus on things they are interesting in for dozens of hours straight often forgetting to eat, sleep or otherwise do normal things (it’s a misappropriation of executive function). For Fischer, practicing chess was not a slog. It’s literally the only thing he ever wanted to do. And he said as much directly.

“All I want to do, ever, is play chess.”

~Bobby Fischer~

Born to Lead

So Fischer was not born a great chess player, but he was born naturally good at a lot of qualities which make a good chess player. Those same qualities also make great musicians, artists, or any other great pioneers in a number of fields. It just so happened the game of chess resonated with Fischer.

Likewise, people can also be born naturally good at skills and traits which make good leaders. But they are not born good leaders. Those same skills and traits also make good project managers, therapists, museum curators etc. The point is, you can become as good of a chess player as Bobby Fischer with enough time, practice, and sacrifice even if you are not naturally inclined to all of the things he was. However, he does have an advantage because time, practice, sacrifice, the will to win are already things someone like him is good at and enjoys.

Just because someone is naturally good at the skills which make good leaders does not mean they were born to be a good leader. It just means they have a natural advantage. Their time practicing, focusing, growing, and reading will likely yield greater results faster, but someone not naturally inclined towards this discipline can still learn it and be an amazing leader. It’s just more likely they have a tougher road ahead of them.

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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