Are leaders born or bred?
Genes explain some reasons — but not all — for why certain people seem to be born leaders.
We've all met them – self-confident leaders who can tolerate stress and who perform their best when they have lots of irons in the fire, often in the public eye.
Others function best in the shadows with less responsibility and prefer clear direction about what to do. Are we born that way or do we become like that?
Genes and hormones affect leadership
Our genes and hormones interact in a way that affects how we perform our job and whether we prefer to lead or be led.
“Genes produce various hormones that affect our feelings and actions,” said Biology Professor Dag O. Hessen at a recent breakfast meeting in Oslo organized by the Norwegian association of natural scientists (Naturviterne).
Some people may even have certain genes that predispose them to leadership roles, studies show. But actually becoming a good leader is another matter. Different situations require different types of leaders, according to Hessen.
Genes regulate a cocktail of hormones that relate to our self-image and in turn the jobs we seek. High levels of dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline and testosterone can affect where you end up in a leadership hierarchy.
“These are key hormones for the qualities of will, determination and ability, but their impact can go either way,” says Hessen.
Low levels of the stress hormone cortisol are also conducive to an ideal leader mix. By way of example, imagine a scenario of preparing for and participating in a televised debate. Certain genes will contribute to some people getting an adrenalin rush from the task, while others become stressed enough to refuse out of sheer horror.
These genes provide instructions for hormones and neurotransmitters that control risk taking, authority and aggression, but also caring.
Complex interplay between genes and environment
Genes may be important, but it is difficult to pinpoint a single gene as the sole reason for a trait. Even an obviously inherited trait like height is controlled by a complex interaction of hundreds of genetic variants. “We can’t point to one gene as the cause,” says Hessen.
The environment is also important, and animal studies show that when test subjects are put into a leadership role through chance or manipulated trials, they often undergo hormonal changes.
Environmental factors also exert an influence in other ways. For example, intelligence as measured by current IQ tests is based about 50-60 per cent on heredity, and the rest on environment. The IQ in a population may also rise or fall — the so-called Flynn effect. Many reasons for this are possible, including changes in the school system and diet.
Professor Kjell Salvanes at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) reported at the 2014 NHH Fall Conference that although the IQ of Norwegian recruits has increased over the past several decades, more recently their IQ scores have been dropping. One explanation may be the changes in vocational education and increased dropout rate.
“Environmental factors are significant for traits that can be trained,” says Hessen.
Twin studies show that identical twins with identical genetic starting points can evolve to be very different if they grow up in different environments.
“Epigenetics is the joker in this picture,” says Hessen. Some genes can be switched on and off, depending on the environmental factors. He shows a photo of identical twins where one was adopted as a child. They have even grown to different heights.
But what makes the best leaders?
Just having the will and ability to take responsibility isn’t enough. Social skills, teamwork skills and empathy are important for leaders. Group dynamics and culture play a part, too, Hessen says.
Groups almost always make better decisions than individuals and outperform groups that do not cooperate. “That's because groups always include people who have experience and expertise that the others don’t have,” says Hessen. So sometimes it behoves a leader to consult with employees before making a decision, to build employee trust and buy-in.
Stig Ytterstad at BI Norwegian Business School has researched extensively on transformational leadership and notes that someone who is seen as a strong leader in one country can fail as a leader elsewhere.
He gives as an example a female business leader in Europe with an inclusive leadership style, who was seen as a weak leader in an African country. That culture perceived her as insecure.
Ytterstad’s research shows that a passive management style is not productive or popular among employees. The best leaders make a company’s goals clear, are aware of employees' needs and facilitate their development.
For a few hundred euros, you can undergo genetic testing that will tell you about your disease risks and to some extent if you are predisposed to certain character traits.
But Hessen has little faith that such testing can or should be used as a criterion for career choices. Genes set some sideboards, but within them we have a lot of room to move, he says.
He also has ethical qualms about using genetic testing in this way, because “our genetic profile is the most personal thing we have, and certainly not something that employers or insurance companies should have access to”.
Hessen says that social status and belonging are the overriding factors when it comes to getting a job. Studies show that employers go with their gut feeling when they hire someone, and they choose people they think are a good fit. Other studies suggest that stereotypic thinking greatly influences the employment process.
“Personality is important,” says Hessen. “Some people have the ideal combination of empathy, authority and strategic vision, but not many people are born leaders.”