The “Naughty” Gene & Its Mixed Impact on Leadership

Are leaders born or made? This question is raised again and again whenever there is a discussion about leadership. People are interested in this “nature versus nurture” discussion for at least two reasons. First, we are genuinely curious about the answer. And second, individuals (being parents, students or employees), as well as organizations, seek guidance of what to do based on the answer.

For scientists, one key challenge to answer this question is, each individual’s growth trajectory is influenced by many factors, thus the question becomes: how to differentiate the inherited factors from environmental factors? The Minnesota twin studies have been designed to tackle this challenge. By comparing identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) and fraternal twins (who share 50% of their genes on average), researchers reported that genetic factors explained about 30% of individual difference in whether people hold leadership positions in the workplace[i]. However, it is worth noting that environmental factors, especially work experiences, are substantially important in determining leadership.

What is not examined in the twin study is whether specific DNA markers are involved in genetic influences on leadership. Based on the findings from twin studies, researchers have been making further efforts to identify specific DNA markers that may be involved in genetic influences on leadership. A recent study [ii] published in the Leadership Quarterly provides new insight. This study examined how a dopamine transporter gene, DAT1, was involved in genetic influences on leadership role occupancy. Researchers found that this gene has mixed impacts on leadership. On one hand, individuals with this gene were more likely to demonstrate moderate rule-breaking behaviors, which is important for becoming a leader. Think about some successful business leaders of the century – Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Jack Welch – they started demonstrating “naughty” behaviors in their early ages, i.e., behaviors that challenge the status quo and explore the boundaries of rules. And later on, in their areas of expertise, they dared to transform the rules and became leaders of the industry.

On the other hand, unsurprisingly, it was found that the “naughty” gene was also associated with lack of planning, self-control and perseverance, which are also important leadership competencies. The findings suggest that the “naughty” gene can be a mixed blessing; whether individuals with this gene become leaders or not depends on other factors such as the environment. For instance, if family and organizations provide safe environments to encourage individuals’ rule-breaking and innovative behaviors and at the same time, help them improve self-regulation, the overall influences of the naughty gene might become positive and individuals are likely to take up leadership positions.

So, what is the implication of these scientific findings?

First, the scientific research confirms that neither nature nor nurture can solely determine whether someone will occupy a leadership position, but it is the joint influences of both nature AND nurture that play important roles. In fact, the data showed that environmental factors weight heavier in influencing individuals’ leadership journey. The implication for most of us is that, leadership can be practiced and learned.

Moreover, instead of debating between nature and nurture, it makes more sense to look at the interaction between these two aspects. As the study showed, an inherited trait can be a double-edged sword, and thus how individuals turn out to be depends on external factors. Hence, parents, trainers and educators should create an individualized learning environment where developmental opportunities are provided according to people’s individual characteristics, which allow them to fully realize their leadership potentials.

The findings of genetic research are not, and should not be used to label individuals. Actually, determining leadership solely based on a single genetic test is unlikely because human evolution is such a complicated process that millions of genes, and their interactions as well as gene-environment interactions, have complex impacts on human traits and behaviors. Rather, genetic information may provide us one more data point, in addition to other assessments, to help us tailor developmental interventions for individuals[iii]. Optimistically, if genetic information becomes available, based on such information and early family environments, talents can search the best-fit developmental tools for themselves to maximize their leadership development; organizations can also provide tailored leadership developmental plans. Such individualized practices obviously will attract talents, which in turn will contribute to organizational effectiveness.

Final note

Genetics research has often been misinterpreted as advocating genetic determinism. But recently, more and more researchers have realized that genetic factors work in tandem with environmental factors in shaping human attitudes and behavior. Put differently, leadership is a joint product of nature AND nurture. The key question is how organizations and individuals can figure out the best possible ways to optimize potential positive influences of the nature and minimize possible adverse influences of the nature by changing the nurture. As Francis Bacon once wrote, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”

[i] Arvey, R. D., Rotundo, M., Johnson, W., Zhang, Z., & McGue, M. (2006). The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic and personality factors.The Leadership Quarterly17(1), 1-20.

[ii] Li, W. D., Wang, N., Arvey, R. D., Soong, R., Saw, S. M., & Song, Z. (2015). A mixed blessing? Dual mediating mechanisms in the relationship between dopamine transporter gene DAT1 and leadership role occupancy. The Leadership Quarterly.

[iii] more about customization of leadership development, refer to this book:

McCauley, C. D., DeRue, D. S., Yost, P. R., & Taylor, S. (2014). Experience-Driven Leader Development. Wiley.

Additional Contributing Author:

WendongLiDr. Wen-Dong Li is an assistant professor at Kansas State University. He received a Ph.D. degree in Organizational Behavior from National University of Singapore in 2013.

Dr. Li conducts research on proactivity across a number of areas, including work analysis/design, leadership, career success, and personality change. He is intrigued by how people are willing and able to modify, but also adapt to, their environments. His work examines individual (e.g., personality traits and genetics) and environmental (e.g., work context and culture) factors which may prompt proactivity, as well as the consequences of being proactive (e.g., as reflected in people’s performance, well-being, and changes in their personality traits). Recently, he is doing research looking at the role of time in organization behaviors. His work has been published at the Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, and the Leadership Quarterly. He has also received awards including the Academy of Management International HRM Scholarly Research Award and Best Student Convention Paper Award, and Best Paper Award in the OB Division, Asian Academy of Management. Recently, he has been recognized as one of the “30 Most Influential Living I/O Psychologists”.

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