We’ve all met people we could easily tag as “natural born leaders.” Whether it’s their charisma, charm, ability to multitask, or uncanny way of bringing out the best in others, some people seem naturally gifted with the qualities of leadership.
An international team of researchers based at University College London now claim that a specific gene may make people more likely to take on leadership roles. The study, published in Leadership Quarterly, examined genetic samples and information about jobs and relationships from about 4,000 individuals.
When they crunched the numbers, researchers found that one gene—rs4950—was significantly associated with those who occupied supervisory roles in the workplace.
“The conventional wisdom—that leadership is a skill—remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait," lead author Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University College London’s School of Public Policy, said. “Although leadership should still be thought of predominantly as a skill to be developed, genetics—in particular the rs4950 genotype—can also play a significant role in predicting who is more likely to occupy leadership roles.”
Nature vs. Nurture
Just as you inherit your eye color from your parents, you inherit other genes as well. Parents can pass down the rs4950 gene to their children, but they have a much greater effect on their offspring once they’re out of the womb.
If your parents are CEOs or doctors, it’s only natural for you to pick up some of their habits by merely growing up on their schedules. You observe the hours they keep, how much they focus on their work, and whether they lead by example.
But if you go on to become a leader, is it because it’s in your genes or because you’re a product of your environment?
De Neve notes that the effects of genes on leadership requires more study, but theirs was the first research to pinpoint a gene that may make a person more prone to becoming a leader. De Neve's team also wants to learn more about how the rs4950 gene interacts with other factors, such as a child's learning environment, to aid in the emergence of leadership.
“If we really want to understand leadership and its effect on organizational, institutional, economic and political outcomes, we must study both nature and nurture,” he said.
What Is Leadership, Really?
The current study doesn’t pinpoint what makes a good leader, only that a specific gene increases one’s likelihood of seeking out a leadership role at work. It could, however, help us get a better understanding of what leadership is and how we can foster it.
“We think this research is useful for understanding how leadership emerges and how we might be able to adapt environmental factors to improve leadership ability,” the researchers noted.
But the question must still be asked: what makes an individual a good leader? If it were simply a matter of genetics, the shelves of your local bookstore’s self-help section would be bare.
Previous research into leadership by Dr. Sankalp Chaturvedi of Imperial College London found that genes only account for half of the qualities a person needs in order to provide transformational leadership—the kind that can inspire. Chaturvedi's team says the findings highlight the need for managers to be properly trained in transformational leadership, "one of the most effective leadership styles in affecting employee attitudes, behaviors, and performance."
John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that management is often confused for leadership. Management, he wrote, is producing products or services on budget, of a consistent quality, on a regular basis. Leadership, he wrote, is entirely different:
“It is associated with taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it's about behavior.”
Kotter argues that leadership is needed from more people, no matter where they sit in the office hierarchy.
“The notion that a few extraordinary people at the top can provide all the leadership needed today is ridiculous, and it's a recipe for failure,” he wrote.