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A Genetic Link to Leadership

January 2013 - A specific DNA sequence has been significantly associated with the likelihood that an individual is linked with a leadership position, according to a study, published in Leadership Quarterly.

The study by an international research team used a large twin sample and estimated that a quarter of observed variation in leadership behaviour between individuals can be explained by inherited genes. The rearchers included participants from University College London (UCL), Harvard, NYU, and the University of California.

Lead author Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve (UCL School of Public Policy) said:

"We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations. The conventional wisdom - that leadership is a skill - remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait."

The researchers analyzed compared genetic samples from about 4,000 individuals in two large-scale US samples in the United States, available through the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and the Framingham Heart Study. These studies included information about jobs and relationships and leadership behaviour was triggered by occupation of supervisory roles in the workplace. The analysis found a significant association between rs4950 and leadership in both surveys.

Achieving a leadership position depends largely on the development of skills but the findings showed that inheriting the leadership trait can also play an important role.

According to Jan-Emmanuel De Neve: "As recent as last August, Professor John Antonakis, who is known for his work on leadership, posed the question: 'is there a specific leadership gene?'

"This study allows us to answer yes - to an extent. Although leadership should still be thought of predominantly as a skill to be developed, genetics - in particular the rs4950 genotype - can also play a significant role in predicting who is more likely to occupy leadership roles."

Noting that we need to know more about influences such as an individual's learning environment in the development of leadership, Dr De Neve observed:

"Our work also draws attention to the ethical issues surrounding the use of genetic tests for leadership selection and assessment, and that we should seriously consider expanding current protections against genetic discrimination in the labour market. Our main suggestion for practice is that this research may help in the identification of specific environmental factors that can help in the development of leadership skills.

"If we really want to understand leadership and its effect on organizational, institutional, economic and political outcomes, we must study both nature and nurture," he added.

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