The biology of leadership

To do great things is difficult; but to command great things is more difficult. —Friedrich Nietzsche. 

What makes a great leader? This is an age old question that has been studied and analyzed for ages- from the battlefields of Waterloo to the booming capitalism of Wall Street in America, us humans are always on the lookout for leaders to aspire to. The greatest of leaders have the capacity to mould and shape events in an unprecedented manner. Therefore it seems pertinent to try and figure out what makes a Napoleon, a Gandhi or a Steve Jobs tick. 

Obvious factors that contribute to the software and hardware of a leader are things such as upbringing or values and intelligence. There is one other factor that could contribute to qualities of leadership…DNA. Is it possible that the genetic makeup of an individual contributes too? This notion has been received with much skepticism, as the issue of leadership is a complex one- one that requires taking into account multiple factors, some of which I’ve mentioned above. However, work over the last decade is showing that there might be a genetic element to leadership. 

Here I present a study published in 2006, titled ‘The determinants of leadership role occupancy: genetic and personality factors’, published in the Leadership Quarterly. 

To summarize the work, what the authors did is to study a sample of male twins either identical or fraternal. While identical twins have a 100% DNA match, fraternal twin have, on average 50% of their genes matching. Twin studies are commonly used in behavioral genetics as twins have similar DNA, yet turn out to have different personalities. The one big assumption made in these kinds of studies is that the twins are exposed to similar family environments when growing up. Once this assumption is made, it then becomes easier to answer questions about how much of a role the DNA has on personality. 

While this study doesn’t really identify specific regions of the DNA that might lead to a variance in leadership abilities, it raises the possibility that there may be an influence on leadership from a persons genetic makeup. 

Much more work needs to be done before anybody can claim that a persons DNA makes him or her a better leader. Indeed, studies like this are limited by various factors such as limited sample size and the ‘measures’ or models that are used, which tend to vary between studies. 

However, the point of this post is to make you think about link that might exist between our genetic makeup and our ability to lead. What would happen if you looked into the DNA of the top 100 CEOs in the world?