Are Leaders Born or Made?

New Research on Leadership as an Inherited Trait

It’s an age-old question: are leaders born or made?


photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

New research just published online by Leadership Quarterly says that a leadership gene may just exist after all. UCL (University College of London) along with an international research team from Harvard, NYU, and the University of California report that a specific DNA sequence associated with the tendency for individuals to occupy leadership positions has been discovered.

“We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations,” said lead author Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, from UCL. “The conventional wisdom—that leadership is a skill—remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait.”

They compared genetic samples in two surveys of approximately 4,000 individuals with information about jobs, relationships and supervisory roles. In both surveys, there was a significant association between the gene and supervisory positions.

The significance of this report is encouraging:

  1. It may assist us in the identification of specific environmental factors that can help the development of leadership skills.
  2. It can aid in predicting who is more likely to occupy leadership positions and fostering those young people to who carry the gene to step up.
  3. It forces us to seriously consider expanding our current protections against genetic discrimination in the labor market.
  4. It draws attention to ethical issues surrounding the work of genetic tests for leadership selection and evaluation.

In the end, the researchers underscored more than once that leadership is still a skill to be developed and that it can be cultivated in people, as long as we allow them to remain true to the person they are, and align with their own natural style.

At Growing Leaders, we believe leadership has less to do with a position and more to do with a disposition. I have always believed there are certain temperaments who are more predisposed to taking charge. Natural leaders are easy to spot. What we hope to do is to cultivate the gifts in students so they can find their natural place of greatest influence. I believe the natural, gifted leaders (L) should probably assume the positions at the top, but the rest of us (l) must find a way to lead in whatever role we assume. We need leaders at every level.

I’d like to hear from you. What do you think about this leadership “gene”? How should we respond when it comes to developing student leaders?

Are Leaders Born or Made?