A leadership gene? Researchers look for correlations

Scientists examine gene linked to motivation, impulsivity and self-regulation, seeking leadership correlation

It is a classic question: Are leaders born or made?

A new study attempted to provide an answer by examining whether people who have a certain gene, the dopamine transporter DAT1, also hold managerial roles.

Researchers at Kansas State University and the National University of Singapore looked at that gene because previous research showed the body's dopamine systems to be linked to qualities such as motivation, impulsivity and self-regulation — all factors that can affect leadership.

The study found that people who had a version of the gene, called the 10-repeat allele, were significantly more likely to have been rule-breakers as teenagers, engaging in behaviors such as skipping classes or underage drinking.

There's a reason that that finding is revelatory. According to Wendong Li, an assistant professor at Kansas State University and a co-author of the study, previous research has found links between youthful rule-breaking and higher future leadership potential. That means the gene that the researchers studied could, in theory, have a leadership connection.

"All those moderate rule-breaking behaviors can make you explore boundaries, develop new knowledge and also new skills," Li said in an interview. "And all that newly acquired knowledge and skills can make you more likely to become a leader in the future."

As with most research, however, the take-away was hardly clear-cut. The study also found that those with the 10-repeat allele were less likely to have something called "proactive personality," or an aptitude for taking initiative and persevering toward their goals. That was in opposition to the researchers' other finding, Li said, because proactive personalities have been clearly linked with higher leadership potential in past research.

The study used two data samples (one with roughly 300 people and the other with about 13,000) and gathered information on their DNA, personality traits, behavior and professional histories.

Although the researchers uncovered those two interesting genetic links, they did not find the crown jewel of correlations — that study participants with the specific allele were also more likely to hold top managerial roles.

Li said he was not disappointed or surprised that the research did not show a definitive link. "A gene is not magically going to make you become a leader," he said. Still, he said, he finds it worthwhile to examine the many ways in which overall genetic makeup, other biological factors, and environment and experience can have some influence on who ends up taking charge and who does not.

Li posits that someday, people may be as curious to know about their genetic propensity for leadership as they are about their genetic predisposition for health problems.

He does not think, however, that employers should — or ever will — examine employees' genes when searching for future leaders. In fact, he says research such as his may even serve an opposite purpose: It can be a reminder that there are huge variations among employees, and bringing out each worker's best usually requires personalized management approaches.

That is not to say management practices will be customized according to people's genes, Li says. "But what we can do is take our differences more seriously — either employees' personality traits or their intelligence or interests — to customize our work schedules, our training and our development."

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post's On Leadership section.

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