Developing Innate Gifts for Leadership

By Gary Hanson; the author invites your feedback at

It is an oft-debated question whether leadership is something one is born with, or something one acquires. Does a leader grow more by acquired skills from the challenges of work experience, or by natural endowments such as genetics, appearance and personality? Do leaders develop in isolation or did they have some help from their environment along the way? And, where does parental influence fit in, or even core values stimulated from one’s faith or church?

During my first year of seminary in 1974-75, I volunteered as a youth worker for Young Life, a Christian outreach to high school students. Our meetings were held at the old Murray High School, now a middle school located near Luther Seminary and the Fairgrounds in St. Paul, Minnesota. One of the sharper students in our “club” was a junior named Arne. Born in Japan to missionary parents, he was athletic and popular, and had a dry wit.

Other kids looked to Arne for approval and direction. If he supported something, they felt it was worth doing. Our ministry staff quickly learned we could depend on him for leadership. His cooperation and validation furthered the goals of our group.

That next year, I moved on to other ministries, and eventually ordination. I lost track of Arne and the others. Yet I had a hunch that he was someone who might be successful someday.

Fast forward to 2021. A few months ago, I read the obituary of the current CEO and president of the Marriott Corporation, who tragically passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 62. He was only the third person in Marriott’s 85 year history, and the first non-Marriott family member, to head the corporation. When I saw his picture and the mention of his St. Paul connection, faint bells of recognition rang in my memory. Digging further, I learned he was a liberal-arts-college and law-school graduate, but also, a St. Paul Murray High School alum from 1976.

His name was Arne Sorenson. It was the same sharp kid I remembered from 46 years ago.

There are dozens of stories online noting his inspiring and visionary guidance. Starting in the company’s law department and working his way up, his brilliant business sense led the company through extraordinary growth, into becoming the world’s largest hotel firm. Ahead of his time in championing such issues as inclusion, diversity and social responsibility, he was beloved and respected by all employees, whom he genuinely cared about. A down-to-earth family man, charitable and authentic, he looked beyond the corporate bottom line to try to always do what was kind and decent.

Repeatedly, expressions such as “an exceptional human being” and “stood up for what was right for his employees and customers” were included. The final entry on his LinkedIn blog, announcing his plan to step back and focus on his health, ended with these words of encouragement: “Stay focused, stay strong and let’s do great work together.”

I began to wonder if in some way, the ministry of Young Life or growing up in a missionary household may have influenced this man’s exceptional character. I also wondered to what extent he might have been innately equipped by what some call a “leadership gene.”

Some people are blessed with innate gifts that equip them in areas such as intelligence, creativity and even self-confidence. These are good starting points in developing Christian leaders, whether as CEOs of major corporations or in other roles. However, behavioral theories suggest that other leadership skills such as integrity, accountability, perseverance, humility and vision aren’t always ingrained, but are able to be taught – people can obtain these qualities through experience and learning them over time.

I do find it interesting that sometimes these talents and abilities come more naturally. After my experience with Arne, I believe there is such a thing as a leadership gene, at least in the sense that some of the key gifts needed for leadership involve capacities that have to be present before they can be trained. Every so often it becomes clearly obvious in someone at an early age, even to an untrained eye.

Born or developed, though, all leadership skills can be used effectively in God’s kingdom and the marketplace.

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