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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?


  1. Phil on January 25, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Very interesting! It would also be interesting to have known if some of the major leaders in scripture had this DNA..? Abraham, Moses, King David, the apostles? In the business world, I could see how this information could be a tremendous assest to have, however in church leadership I could see us leaning more towards someone’s “inclination/DNA make-up” than the Spirit’s equipping.
    Very intriguing though. Thanks for posting!

    • Tim Elmore on January 28, 2013 at 9:38 am

      Yes! It would be interesting to know who had this gene historically – I imagine we wouldn’t be surprised by most findings but I’m sure a few would. Either way, the possibility of identifying this leadership gene just becomes another tool to recognize and develop potential in others.

  2. PK on January 25, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    The good news is it confirms that we are uniquely created by God to accomplish what he had for us from long ago. (Eph 2:10) So I am not surprised scientists have found this. So what happens if you have this gene and decide to passive and not lead. Then what? My point is God equips us to accomplish his desires and plans for us. If I don’t have this gene and I lead because that is what God asked me to do…then he will supply what I need when I need to give him glory! Moses had a long list of excuses, (Exodus 3:10-22 and on) God said it’s me Moses, not you! So I am not surprised but amazed that we are intricately made (Psalm 139) to bring God glory.

    • Tim Elmore on January 28, 2013 at 9:47 am

      Great point. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  3. Butterfly on January 26, 2013 at 7:45 am

    Thanks Tim you always amaze me about how to have an open eye for this generation and giving them a chance to grow and share in changing the environment around them. I have a question : I often find it hard to keep them passionate and making things happen. I find them not patient or willing to pay the price. I find them hard to be convinced of their abilities to finish. I usually lose the conversation with them. I usually demanding too much and forget to praise on the simple things they did. They think being in a position would make them able. But they don’t understand that they need to put effort and also engage others and from time to time evaluate to see where they are going and what have they accomplished. I think they do not need a position to lead and they can make an impact by being followers and when reaching the target with a group then they can be put in position. What do you think of my ideas and my approach toward this generation? because they long to in charge and at the same time they do not want to be responsible for making it succeed.

    • Tim Elmore on January 28, 2013 at 9:46 am

      You are definitely describing a reality I see played out over countless student groups across the country. There are two things I would recommend: 1. Give them the opportunity to get small wins quickly before they pursue bigger projects. Give them the confidence they need to tackle long-term projects. I know it seems counter-intuitive to praise the small steps along the way but it is often necessary for a generation who is accustomed to instant results. 2. I often remind adults that students support what they help create. As you develop student leaders, look for opportunities to give not just a title but actual input in the decision-making process. You are the guide for this process but there is value in letting students guide the direction of certain aspects of your program. The level of buy-in that comes from students when their ideas are heard is a powerful force for maintaining momentum.

      Just a few thoughts but I hope that’s helpful. Keep up the great work!

  4. Gerald Briscoe on January 26, 2013 at 11:44 am

    I have always felt that God has given us certain gifts and talents, and expects us to discover those gifts, develop them to their fullest, and then use them in service to others.
    To discover that you have a leadership gene is only one step. Another step is do discover your areas of giftedness, and then use that leadership gene in that area.

    • Tim Elmore on January 28, 2013 at 9:39 am

      Great reminder, Gerald. With or without this gene, we all have the responsibility to develop our gifts and serve others. Thanks for weighing in.

  5. Orlando on January 28, 2013 at 10:46 am

    I understand this and I agree that we all have a responsibility to lead where GOD has placed us for example as the head of our family. After GOD created man He then stepped back and declared “let them rule” and with this declaration we took up the roll of leader over GOD’s creations. I think as we really grow into this roll that GOD has put us in we will see more genuine leaders developed from the family structure as GOD intended.

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Are Leaders Born or Made?