Sheryl Sandberg seemed destined to helm the world’s largest social media network. In her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the Facebook COO talks about training her two younger siblings (toddlers at the time) to follow her around the house and respond to her monologues with a resounding “Right!” When she wasn’t rallying her siblings, she was directing plays and running clubs.
Which brings us to the riddle that continues to leave social scientists scratching their heads: Are leaders born or made? Research published in the Leadership Quarterly late last year points to the latter, suggesting that genetics do influence leadership — but in complex ways. The researchers discovered:
People with a certain variant of a gene called DAT1 were more likely to become leaders, thanks possibly to a penchant for risk-taking.
But that didn’t necessarily make them good leaders; those with the same variant also scored lower on proactive personality traits.
Kansas State University and National University of Singapore researchers zeroed in on the dopamine transporter gene DAT1, previously linked to impulsivity, self-regulation and a head-on approach to situations. To examine how DAT1 affects leadership, they focused on two traits thought to drive leadership: mild rule-breaking — like skipping school or drinking alcohol — and proactive personality, which includes foresight, persistence and other characteristics needed to make positive organizational changes.
The researchers analyzed data from 309 Chinese adults, who answered questions about their personality and whether they had held any supervisory positions at work (such as manager or director), and whose blood was collected for DNA analysis. Participants with a certain variant of DAT1, the 10-repeat allele, were more likely to have engaged in mild rule-breaking as adolescents. Mild rule-breaking might have helped groom them for leadership, allowing them to practice exploring new situations, behavior that probably led their peers to view them as charismatic and powerful.
But those same individuals also scored lower on proactive personality. Sure enough, earlier studies have linked the 10-repeat allele to hyperactivity and poor inhibition. “You can be in a leadership role, but you might not be effective,” explains study co-author Richard Arvey, a professor of management and organization at the National University of Singapore. His team saw similar results when they collected data from another study of 13,000 U.S. adults.
Researchers envision companies using genetic testing for personalized leadership development.
Arvey cautions that these relationships, though statistically significant, are still somewhat tenuous; it’s still too early to gauge how much DAT1 affects leadership. And while some people’s genetic backgrounds are better-suited for leadership roles, their environment could still determine whether they assume them — presenting opportunities to lead, or not. Scott DeRue, professor of management at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, expresses concern at “the idea that it’s this single gene predicting a complex set of behaviors.” Another gene correlated with DAT1 might be responsible, or even multiple genes working together.
Arvey’s team envisions companies using genetic testing for personalized leadership development rather than hiring, similar to personalized medicine, determining whether employees need extra training in proactive personality behaviors, for example. William Becker, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business, imagines genetic test results acting like “the personality profile card you keep on your desk during meetings,” he says. “This could be the more advanced version.” Move over, Myers-Briggs.