Born to lead

Are leaders born, or is leadership primarily something that one develops with experience?  It is a question that is frequently asked, but one that has been surprisingly understudied.

So what role, if any, does biology play in determining leadership qualities?

At NUS Business School’s Department of Management and Organisation, we have taken an active role in this exciting and relatively new field of leadership research – specifically examining the influence of genetics. And our studies have found clear evidence that biology does, in fact, have a significant impact on leadership.

Over several studies, our research has investigated a number of biological factors and how they influence the emergence of leaders as well as some of the managerial processes involved in the execution of leadership.

Initially though we decided to probe the most basic nature versus nurture question of leadership, using groups of twins to investigate this issue. This methodology is well known where the similarity of identical twins is compared to the similarity of fraternal twins on measures of leadership (or, indeed, any other variable of interest).

Identical twins share 100 per cent of their genes, while fraternal twins share only 50 per cent on average of their genes. Both types of twin pairs (identical and fraternal) were raised in the same families. Thus, each twin pair was exposed to the same or “common” environments such as the same parents, same background, same age groups, same income levels, etc. As such we could assume that to a large extent the environments in which the twins were raised were held constant or controlled.

If genetic factors are at play, the identical twins will be more similar than fraternal twins in terms of whether they became leaders. Moreover, recent statistical methods permit us to estimate just how much the genetic factors played in who becomes a leader – an aspect called the “heritability” of leadership.

Genetics are indeed a significant factor in whether people move into positions of leadership – accounting for almost a third of differences

Our first study involved a male sample of 238 of the two types of twins. We asked each of these twins to indicate the number and kinds of leadership roles they held both at work or non-work settings (e.g. social clubs, church congregations, etc.).

From there we developed a metric that reflected the level of leadership role each individual held (if any) – the higher the score, the higher the leadership role (e.g. CEO, director, manager, supervisor, etc.).  We labeled this “leadership role occupancy” reflecting the notion that it was a threshold variable in terms of what most people would consider an indication of a leader – i.e. formal leadership positions in organisations. The sample included individuals who held no positions, as well as those who held positions ranging from work group leader to president of an organisation.

Our results showed that the identical twins were far more similar in terms of whether they held positions of leadership compared to the similarity observed in the fraternal twins. Analyses also showed that the index of heritability was .31 – in other words that 31 per cent of the differences among the individuals holding leadership positions could be accounted for by genetics.

twins280Born leaders or born followers?However, the remaining 69 per cent could be accounted for by either environmental or random factors – such as their experiences and education, unique developmental histories, or just plain luck.

This shows that genetics are indeed a significant factor in whether people move into positions of leadership – accounting for almost a third of differences – but that environmental and other factors combined play a larger role still.

Following these findings we decided to replicate this study with a sample of 392 female identical and fraternal twins using the same measure of “leadership role occupancy”. Again, our data showed that 32% of the variability in leadership role occupancy was associated with the genetic makeup of these twins, while the other 68 per cent was associated with environmental factors.

However, these results and those of the previous study are not informative with regard to what specific environmental factors are involved, so in this second study we asked the twins which experiences were most important in terms of them moving into their positions of leadership.

We asked them to indicate which of a number of critical events were most important, including religious experiences, education, prior successes, parents, etc. There were two general factors that we derived from their responses – one was a factor that essentially reflected experiences at work and education, and the other was one that reflected more personal and family experiences.

Interestingly, while both were statistically associated with the leadership role occupancy measure, when we were able to statistically hold constant genetic factors, only the work factor was significant. So when somebody mentions that their mother or father were primary drivers of their ascendance into leadership positions, this might be true, but perhaps via their transmission of their genes.

Environmental influence

So the upshot is that yes, genes are important but so is the environment in fostering leadership ascendance. Both are important, but more importantly both factors operate in tandem – you can’t have one without the other.

The role of genetics was a stronger influence when individuals experienced difficult childhood environments

Our next study involved exploring possible interactions between environmental and genetic factors under that the notion that individuals with certain genetic predispositions will be affected more by some environments than others in terms of whether they become leaders. In this case, using the same male twins as in our first study, we looked at whether genetic influence was more or less powerful under difficult and stressful conditions growing up or not.

Our findings showed that the role of genetics was a stronger influence when individuals experienced difficult childhood environments.

We are currently looking at different databases to further our explorations of the role of genetics in leadership.  For example, we are exploring longitudinal databases to see if the role of genes differs over time with regard to individuals’ movement into leadership positions. That has also raised another field of study, as to whether there might be a different set of genes responsible for determining who becomes a good follower (as opposed to a difficult or “bad” follower).

What are the implications of this research? While it certainly is a long way off that we will be able to identify any “leadership” genes, this may be a product of future research. Perhaps such information will allow us to identify who might profit best by certain kinds of developmental interventions and/or “fast track” programs sponsored by companies.  However, right now research is showing that the identification of specific genes for even very highly inherited characteristics (e.g. height) is very difficult. The pathways are incredibly complex probably involving multiple genes and their interactions. So don’t expect too much soon on this line of research.

This is an exciting road but our research is just one street on a set of roads looking at a broad range of biological factors that may be associated with leadership.  For example, scholars are now starting to explore the neurological bases of leadership, hormonal influences, as well looking at leadership from an evolutionary perspective.

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