Leadership: Is it in the genes? - IEDP
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Leadership: Is It in the genes?

Richard Arvey asks, if so can it help in allocating developmental resources?

Wednesday 08 June 2011


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An age old question is whether leadership is something one is born with or something one acquires—the nature versus nurture question.  People have very definite ideas about this issue. Some  people believe that leadership is something that can be acquired via experience, training, development, and so forth while others believe leadership is essentially “hard wired”.  In a 2002 article Sorcher and Brant in the Harvard Business Review[1] say: “Our experience has led us to believe that much of leadership is hardwired in people before they reach their early or mid-twenties."  On the other hand, there is a report of a major bank that was trying to develop all of its 95,000 employees into leaders reflecting the belief that leadership is entirely under developmental and environmental influences[2].

What evidence is there to support either of these two views? Simple observation tells us that something genetic might be going on.  We observe that families tend to have similarities in terms of individual family members moving into leadership positions.  Witness such famous individual’s as Presidents John F. Kennedy, George Bush, John Adams (3rd President of the US), and others who have family members that have taken on leadership roles.  However, there is a problem of determining whether such communality is genetic or environmentally produced because families have both environments (e.g. similar wealth, educational opportunities, etc.) as well as genes in common—thus determining whether  leadership is caused by genetic or environmental factors is impossible to discern.

Actually, the idea of whether leadership is either genetically or environmentally influenced is a false dichotomy.  People cannot become leaders in an environmental vacuum.  So, the question really becomes how much do genetics influence leadership relative to environmental factors?  Fortunately, there are several methods which social scientists now use to tease apart these two factors—the discipline is called the field of “behavioral genetics”.  And these methods are now employed to explore the role of genetics and environmental factors as they influence leadership.

It is perhaps worthwhile to first explore just how genetics might influence leadership.  And by leadership—a very slippery concept—we mean generally someone who moves into or emerges as a leader (both formally or informally) as well as whether someone is effective in such leadership roles.  It is valuable to look at the possible ways that genetic and environmental factors could be related to leadership, so Figure 1 shows our notion of how this might work.  Genes have direct impact on a number of chemical, physiological, and psychological components.  These components, in turn, can impact various cognitive functioning (i.e. intelligence), personality traits, interests and values, as well as physiological capacities.  Years of accumulated research has shown that many of these characteristics are heavily genetically influenced and also related to leadership[3].  Of course, environmental factors (both historical and current) have similar influences on these characteristics—but the figure shows the pathways through which genetic and environmental factors eventually are plausibly related to leadership.

How can the field of behavioral genetics be applied in studying the relative influences of genetics and environmental factors on leadership?  The basic research design involves using samples of identical and fraternal twins.  Identical twins share 100% of their genes in common whereas fraternal twins share, on average, 50% of their genes.  If one makes the assumption that the twin types share a common family environment, that is, that they were raised in the same family, had experiences with the same family members, experienced the same income levels, etc., then the observation that identical twins are more similar on a characteristic compared to fraternal twins implies that genetic factors are at work.  For example, when looking at the similarities of identical twins physically (i.e. height, weight, facial features, etc.) one observes very close similarity, but not so much with fraternal twins that often look simply like brothers or sisters.  The assumption of a common or equal environment for twins is often questioned, and while there is evidence that identical twins tend to be treated more uniformly than fraternal twins, this factor does not bias the research findings substantially.

Very sophisticated statistical programs are now used to help tease apart the degree of influence associated with genetic and the environmental factors, and we have been using these programs in our research with twins in the investigation of the nature-nurture question of leadership.  The typical way in which the genetic influence is described is via what is called the “heritability” index, which provides an index of how much the differences between individuals are due to genetic factors.   The range is from 100% (all the differences observed between individuals are due to genetic factors) to 0% (any differences observed is due entirely to environmental and developmental factors).

Our first study[4] was published in 2006 and involved a sample of male twins.  One hundred and nineteen pairs of male identical twins were compared against 94 fraternal twin pairs.  The twins were asked to indicate the number of work-related professional associations they were or had served as a leader, and the positions at work that would be considered managerial or supervisory in nature ranging from supervisor on up to President.  A score was calculated based on these questions to indicate their level of leadership role occupancy, where a high score indicated a relatively high number of leadership positions and leadership level attainment.  If leadership (as we have measured it) had a genetic basis, the identical twin pairs should be more similar on this variable than fraternal twins.  And indeed they were. The results of the statistical analyses showed that genetic factors could account for 31% of the variation observed in the sample subjects—or the heritability was .31. This means that genetics explained about 31% of the differences between individuals on this leadership measure—however, environmental differences also played a larger role, accounting for 69% of the variation. In addition, we attempted to see if we could see if these genetic influences moved through two personality factors (i.e., dominance and achievement) to finally impact on leadership, but the sample was too small to make any concrete conclusions.  The upshot of this first study was that indeed genetic factors are influential in terms of whether individual move into different leadership roles, and can account for a significant proportion of the difference in leadership between individuals.

We conducted a second study[5], using a female twin sample.  Because females face very different environmental challenges during their lifespan (such as more limited opportunities to move into leadership positions, discrimination in the workplace, sex role stereotypes, etc.) we wondered if the heritability of leadership would differ compared to the male sample.  As such, we surveyed 107 identical female twin pairs and 89 fraternal twin pairs asking them again about their leadership experiences.  Our findings were almost exactly the same for females as was for the males as described above.  Thirty two percent of the variability in leadership amongst these women was associated with genetic factors.

One question in this second study (and in other studies of this sort) is what exactly in the environment or in the developmental history of these individuals is associated with leadership emergence.  So, in this study we also gathered information about what pivotal or critical events (or even individuals) that  these women felt were helpful in their ascendance into leadership positions.  While many of them mentioned their parents, their church upbringing, and other personal factors, the events that were most significant in whether they moved into positions of leadership were work related experiences such as prior successes and challenges in their jobs, a mentor, educational experiences, and so forth.  Abstracting these results, genetic factors are significant for women as well as men. In addition, specific work related factors are very important for women in terms of their movement into positions of leadership, independent of any genetic factors operating.  

While these two studies demonstrate the importance of genetic and environmental influences on leadership, they assume that these two factors operate independently—that is, in isolation from each other.  But another interesting question arises concerning whether the two interact to influence leadership?  For example, one might ask whether there are certain environments that make it easier or more difficult for genetic factors to be expressed in terms of producing leaders?  Are certain individuals with specific genetic tendencies drawn to certain environments where leadership is more likely to be manifested?  So, the next study[6] we under took in this area was to investigate whether one’s social environment in adolescence could impact the degree to which genetic influences were stronger or weaker in terms of moving into leadership roles.  We employed a twin study design again and showed that genetic influences were weaker for those individuals raised in more enriched environments when young (i.e. had higher family socioeconomic status, higher perceived parental support, and lower conflict with parents).  The converse was true: Genetic influences were much stronger in influencing who emerged as leaders when individuals experienced a more impoverished family environment while young. In essence, this study showed that one’s underlying genetic talent is more important when facing adversity when young in terms of moving into leadership positions.  The rise of Obama to presidency is a good example of this phenomenon—he experienced many challenges while young, but his obvious innate talent helped him deal with these adverse challenges early in his life.

These studies are amongst others showing the impact of genetics in terms of leadership.  For example, other studies[7]clearly show strong genetic influences in terms of becoming entrepreneurs, a business activity closely related to leadership. Additional research has shown that genes are influential in terms of a number of traits important in moving into leadership roles such as intelligence, personality, values, and so on.  It all comes down to the notion that there are some limitations in terms of who will or can become a leader based on their natural endowments.

So what are the practical implications of all this? Is there a specific gene that will determine whether one becomes a leader? Most likely not—leadership is an exceptionally complex behavioral phenomenon that  most likely involves a set of genes interacting with each other and the environment and such complexity will be difficult to pin down with any degree of specificity. Thus, the notion of using genes to select or identify leaders will probably not happen, at least for the foreseeable future.  And of course, there are sizeable ethical implications of using genetic information for such purposes.

But we are more certain now of other related biological factors that are associated with leadership.  Research evidence is now showing that such variables as height, weight, appearance, hormones, and even brain activity influence whether one becomes a leader and/or is effective in these role.  We are on the way to even more important discoveries regarding the role of these biological factors in leadership. 

From a developmental perspective, knowing that there are limitations in terms of “who can become a leader” has important implications of the allocation of resources for leadership development.  Obviously, a firm would want to allocate developmental resources wisely and judiciously.  One implication is that firms might want to be more careful in their selection of executives and potential leaders.  One way to do this is to look for specific instances where candidates participated in leadership roles.  Our research has also shown that individuals who exhibit leadership at one time and one domain (e.g. sports, church and social groups, etc.) tend to do to so at other times and even other domains.  Thus, look for evidence of leadership in other places among job candidates.

Finally, also from a developmental perspective, firms need to challenge potential leaders, to present opportunities for knowledge growth, to provide mentorship, and so forth but selectively so. 


[1] Sorcher M. & Brant, J. (2002, Feb). Are you picking the right leaders? Harvard Business Review, 80, 78-85.

[2] Kellaway, L. (2002), September 2). Leaders of the bank unite. Financial Times, p. 10.

[3] See for example Ilies, R., Arvey, R.D., & Bouchard, T. J., Jr. (2006). Darwinism, behavioral genetics, and organizational behavior: a review and agenda for future research.

[4] Arvey, R. D., Rotundo, M., Johnson, W., Zhang, Z. & McGue (2006). The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic and personality factors. Leadership Quarterly, 17, 1-20.

[5] Arvey, R. D., Zhang, Z., Avolio, B. & Krueger, R. F. (2007). Development and genetic determinants of leadership role occupancy among women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 693-706.

[6] Zhang, Z., Ilies, R., & Arvey, R.D. (2009). Beyond genetic explanations for leadership: the moderating role of the social environment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 110, 118-128.

[7] See Shane, S. (2010). Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders. Oxford University Press.


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