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While we may not all be born with a silver spoon in our mouth, destined to lead purely on family connections, is there something in our genes that predisposes some to be more likely to end up in a leadership position?

This is a question that has often been asked, yet up until now the answer has not been available.

Leadership is a hot topic and prominent in business circles because of the way much of our business hierarchy is structured. The  Leader is the one perceived or chosen because of their leadership qualities to sit at the top.

The results of a recent study from Harvard, NYU and UCLA, indicate that genetics does play a role in predetermining who is more likely to have the desirable traits for leadership, which is perhaps not  altogether surprising. Even within the existing school system kids can easily discern amongst their peers, who are the natural leaders.

There has been an extraordinary amount of material written about leadership and how to promote those qualities valued in the skill. From this study it would appear that in the future it will be important to consider both the genetic aspects and the impact of the environment on leadership development when considering applicants for their leadership.

In neuroscience, studies have previously revealed  how our brain’s social intelligence allows us to hone those thought patterns and behaviours to enhance what is perceived as good and effective leadership. Behaviours that include the ability to empathise, to relate, to recognise and maintain the status of all parties, to engender trust, communicate with clarity and always be perceived to act in a fair manner.

In a twin design and  genetic association study from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers have identified a genotype called rs4950  from the  comparison of genetic samples of around 4000 individuals in relation to jobs and relationships. What they found was that there was a significant association between this genotype and leadership, as determined by whether the subjects held positions of leadership such as supervisors and managers in the workplace. They estimated that the heritability of leadership role occupancy was in the order of 24%. 

Further research may help to determine how carrying this genotype in relationship to other environmental factors such as the learning environment a child is exposed to, makes a difference in how the trait of leadership emerges. 

Plus it raises some interesting questions in relation to ethics. Should potential leaders be tested for the genotype if being considered for a leadership position? It may seem a little far-fetched, but is important to consider the potential implications if this were to become instigated. 

The conclusion of the study suggests that what leads an individual to occupy a leadership position is  actually the complex result of genetic and environmental influences. 

Food for thought. 


Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Slava Mikhaylov, Christopher T. Dawes, Nicholas A. Christakis, James H. Fowler. Born to lead? A twin design and genetic association study of leadership role occupancy. The Leadership Quarterly, 2013; 24 (1): 45 DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2012.08.001

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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