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Can you coach leadership? Are leaders born or made? What does effective leadership look like?

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What plays a bigger role in determining leadership ability, genes or the environment? Is the ratio 30-70, 50-50, 80-20? Sam Turner is 100% convinced that we should stop playing the age-old nature v nurture percentage game and accept that developing leadership is not a black and white issue.

  • Everyone’s inclination is to look for a leadership structure, a specific leadership style, but the truth is there isn’t a fool proof framework to follow as leadership is a multi-faceted thing.
  • Those who favour isolated approaches to coaching leadership do not understand the complexities of the issue.
  • Sport involves innumerable variations in context, necessitating a range of leadership approaches that are dependent on the situation and the personalities involved.
  • Coaches can, with knowledge and effort, and over a period of time, manage people to successfully become leaders and teach those who don’t consider themselves naturally gifted to acquire leadership acumen.

The headline poses a batch of tantalising questions. Psychologists, businessmen and sports coaches have been hungrily sinking their teeth into these perplexing conundrums for generations.

Is leadership a set of skills that can be learned over time through coaching, practice and experience? Or are we born with innate behaviour qualities and personality traits that make certain people more suited to leadership roles? Discuss…

In the field of psychology, the nature versus nurture debate remains one of the most fiercely-contested topics, if not the most.

Leadership is approximately one-third born and two-thirds made, experts in one camp argue until they are blue in the face. Other academics argue the percentages should be reversed and see red at opposing views.

Extensive research carried out with identical twins claims to prove the existence of a specific leadership gene.

If you had to nail your colours to the mast, would you side with the blue corner or the red corner?

ConnectedCoaches member  Sam Turner is not concerned about which wildly-contrasting estimates may be right or wrong.

He believes the whole focus should be redirected away from proving if there is such a thing as a natural-born leader because, truth be told, there is no one-size-fits-all way to lead.

‘Everyone feels like they must select a side to be on; talent is either nature or it is nurture. For me, defining what leadership and coaching is, or what a leader or a coach looks like, is not black and white.

‘There are so many different contexts to consider – a whole variety of teams that you lead or coach, and a whole variety of individuals that you lead or coach – that will change what that ideal leader, best leader or most effective leader looks like.’

No textbook answer

Sam is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Sport Business Leadership at Loughborough University.

It has proved essential additional learning running parallel with his role as Secretary General of the International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football (IFCPF) and his work for the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) – the global governing body overseeing all CP sports.

While he freely accepts that some characteristics of successful leaders may be genetically determined, he believes that you can develop leadership skills through education and by learning from the rich tapestry of experiences that life throws up.

‘There are a whole range of environments and influences throughout our lives that help us develop as leaders and bring out the best in us,’ he says.

The challenges Sam has faced over the decades have, he says, shaped his development in a more beneficial way than if he had experienced a much smoother, more problem-free ride through life.

‘The fact that there is a such wide range of environmental factors and events that happen to us all – including the luck of coming across the right people at the right time – means there cannot be one definitive way of creating an effective leader.

‘Remember too that, as a leader, you have to keep adapting and growing to be effective in the environment you are working in and the people you are working with.

‘That’s why those people who have some of those natural elements but also seek out development opportunities come through as the best leaders. It is not just a case of they were born with it.

‘If everything was black and white we could all pick up a textbook, read how to do it and then get on with it.’

Jigsaw puzzle

This applies to leadership too. Everyone is looking for a structure, a specific leadership style, but the truth is there isn’t a fool proof way of doing things, as leadership is a multi-faceted, complex beast.

‘To be a skilled leader, it’s about an appreciation and understanding of all the different influences and knowing how to put all the different parts together.

‘Leadership is a living, breathing organism. It is always developing.

‘By trying to coach isolated approaches to leadership, such as the behavioural aspects or intra-personal qualities, I don’t think you are really appreciating what leadership is about.’

We are all guilty, are we not, of an impulse to box everything into neat little categories? But not everything in life can be defined with a clarity that leaves no room for confusion. Life contains layers of complexity that obstruct our urge to have an answer for everything.

‘The need to know how things work is a human obsession,’ agrees Sam.

‘You can observe it in people in certain social situations, who feel uncomfortable, anxious and out of place if they don’t understand the social norms.’


Former England captain Steven Gerrard, a renowned and respected leader, sends out a rallying cry to his players during an international friendly against Peru

How well we respond to coaching is in our DNA

In an article for the Daily Mail following hot on the wheels of the success of Jason and Laura Kenny at the Olympic Games in Rio, Cambridge University geneticist Dr Giles Yeo examined whether children of high fliers were born to be brilliant too?

He wrote that at least 100 genes play a role in determining our bodyweight and shape, with 300 to 400 genes affecting such physical attributes as muscles (such as dominant type of muscle fibre), aerobic capacity, explosive power, endurance potential, hand-eye/foot-eye coordination.

Apparently, mental attributes like focus, determination, motivation and ability to handle pressure situations are also inherent.

Dr Yeo added: ‘There will also be genes that affect our competitive natures, like calmness under pressure and “trainability” – ie, the ability to respond well to coaching’”, before going on to argue the case for why environmental factors (how mindset is shaped by surroundings) are just as crucial in building a champion performer.

But if so many qualities intrinsic to being a consummate leader are inherent, you can understand people’s preoccupation with their genetic make-up, questioning if they can ever hope to occupy that auspicious mantle.

It is unnerving as a coach charged with developing leadership skills in players, and for players themselves, to glance at a list of prescribed leadership attributes and not then question if they are a natural part of their players’/their own make-up: good communicator, empathetic, persuasive, trustworthy, passionate and enthusiastic, a motivator, self-confident, decision maker and problem solver, calm under pressure, resilient, charismatic, persistent, driven, adaptable, encouraging, inspires others, a role model, a risk-taker.

And yet the real crux, if we want to develop leadership potential, is to learn how to handle the genes we have inherited, not lament our lack of desirable attributes or the extent of those we believe we possess.

Yes, genetics may give some people a head start but, as Dr Yeo puts it, using poker as a metaphor for life:You can have a good hand or a bad hand but you can still win with a bad hand and still lose with a good one, depending on how you play the game.’

Mindset, and how you respond to the challenges that emerge throughout life, is critical, as abilities can be transformed for the better through application, hard work and persistence.

CLA and TGfU coaching models

As an example of how, through effective education and training coaches can influence player development, take two leadership attributes from the above list – decision-making skills and problem-solving under pressure.

Coaches who utilise Constrains Led Approach (CLA) and Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) hail the impact these coaching models have on improving these key leadership qualities.

For more detail on these coaching frameworks, and how by imposing conditions in games coaches can expose athletes to opportunities for learning, read this blog.

It means coaches can, with knowledge and effort, and over a period of time, manage people to successfully become leaders and teach those who don’t consider themselves naturally gifted to acquire leadership acumen.

Formal leadership training, such as courses or conferences, books and online resources, can also contribute to the development process.

It’s a team effort

Sam believes the right approach to developing people as leaders is to give players the best training possible, then trust in them to make their own decisions and to deliver.

He saw the advantage of this system for himself when he was invited to Sandhurst Royal Military Academy to observe how British army officers were trained.

‘The military view is that our role as a leader is to serve the people we lead as, ultimately, we are a team and we need to develop all of those people, play to their strengths, support their weaknesses, so that together we are one strong body.

‘Within a sporting context, rather than try and cultivate all the leadership skills within one person which everyone else then follows, a coach should be working with players so that, on match days, it is up to them to lead themselves or lead as a team to achieve their outcomes.

‘The coach can stand on the side-lines shouting all sorts of instructions but, actually, you need to have those capabilities built in to your players to bring the best out of them on the field of play.’

This makes perfect sense as, what if you lose your captain through an injury, sending-off or sin-binning. You must be able to rely on someone else to take on that assigned leadership mantle.

And yet the leadership norm in sport is to have one designated leader for each team on match days.

Sam uses the dynamic at play in blind football to highlight how putting all your eggs in one basket can be detrimental to your hopes of success.

The tactic employed – and which he has experience of enforcing as a coach at the FA Blind Regional Talent Centre and with the FA Disability Talent Programme – is to have a team of leaders working together.

‘In blind football, the defensive third is led by the goalkeeper, who has responsibility for all the communication within that third of the field of play,’ he explains.

‘The coach on match day takes responsibility for the mid-third communication and then there is a guide behind the opponent’s goal to look after the attacking third. Then, on the field of play, there is also the team captain. So in blind football specifically, there are a host of different leaders who all need to have the required attributes and also the trust in each other.’

Sport involves innumerable variations in context, necessitating a wide range of leadership approaches, dependent on the sport, the situation and the personalities involved.

With sport far from straightforward, it stands to reason there can be no straightforward answer to the question of what effective leadership looks like.

But then where would the fun or the challenge be if everything was straightforward?

Leading by example

Arguably, the first rule of coaching is to get to know your players.

Coaches who take the time to scratch below the surface of those they are working with – discover their skills, motivations and aspirations, likes and dislikes – are giving themselves the optimal chance of bringing out the best in their charges.

And some of the best people at doing this are grass-roots coaches working at the lowest tier of the pyramid.

‘When I was working as a mentor with the FA, I would go out to local football clubs and coaches would know every single one of the kids’ names, who their mums and dads were, what was going on in their families and how they were getting on at school,’ says Sam.

‘So, as a leader, they know how to work effectively with each one of those people. Who, for example, will benefit from strong direct instructions and who might respond better with more of a supportive arm round the shoulder.

‘When you work further up the coaching structure, or even the business structure, we get further and further away from leading and working with people and begin working more and more with ‘roles’ and ‘job titles’. I am a big advocate of emotional intelligence, of being able to speak to people, understand them on a deeper level and then work out how to draw the best out of them to get them working effectively in their sport.’

As John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, said: ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.’

And the chances are, by exerting that sort of influence on your players, they will develop into more accomplished leaders themselves.

Please share your thoughts on Leadership in the box below.

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Comments (8)


LEADER Listens, Empowers, Agrees, Directs, Educates, Rewards.

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Well, it's all likely true - but where does it get us?
Of course you can coach leadership - I've done it, seen it and benefitted myself from being coached in leadership.
Is it worth debating whether that was only successful because the person being coached already had the leadership gene? (Unless of course your goal is to produce a debate about leadership!!!)

For me the biggest challenge for any leader is knowing and believing absolutely in where you are going.
If that matters enough then you can overcome any difficulties.
If it doesn't, well you can do anything you like and you'll still get to where you didn't want to go.

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Personal opinion

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I think leadership can be gain by both ways. 1- certain people truly have leadership from birth it can be gift for them and there are many examples for that if you check from history ex: prophets.

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And they are some leaders who are self made from age because of their age they have gone through many things and that have give them the experience and the qualities to lead people and inspire

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Interesting piece. I always start with this great quote from Vince Lombardi: "Only by knowing yourself can you become an effective leader." This is why our leadership courses start with self-awareness, using a BPS registered behavioural profile to help give that robust and objective insight. Then it's about attitude (and specifically taking a growth mindset to your role as leader) and behaviours (with a big focus on emotional intelligence). We take this approach in business and sport, and are always delighted when those who maybe feel they are not 'natural leaders' build their abilities in this area. The army approach (of defining leadership as serving others) is also a great angle to explore, and is picked up (in business terms) by this brilliant book "Multipliers, How the Best Leaders make everyone smarter" by Liz Wiseman.

Avg: 4.8 / 5 (1votes)

Much depends on how one defines leadership. For me, a leader is a person who can "articulate vision, embody values, inspire co-creativity, shared learning & giving back"

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LEADER ----- Listens. Educates, Agrees, Directs, Empowers, Rewards

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