The Genetics of Leadership

February 24, 2013 by Ken Nowack

“Predictions are very difficult, especially when they are about the future”

Yogi Berra

A recent article by Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle-Giulioni reminds all of us that careering today is not just upward mobility but moves up, down, over and around again.

Maybe not all of us “have the right stuff” to be leaders. It’s a lot more popular to subscribe to “leaders are made” versus “leaders are born” but perhaps both positions are right.

What do we know about the genetics of leadership?

  • Avery and colleagues, based on twin studies, estimate that about 33% of the variance in holding leadership roles is due to genetic factors1. Findings from numerous studies of personality show that genetic effects account for approximately 50% of the variance in five factor domains2. Maybe we all have some “leadership set-points” that provide a ceiling or upper limit to our leadership capabilities.

Using twin pairs (about 800) drawn from the National Merit Twin Study, Loehlin, McCrae, Costa, and John (1998) showed that the “Big Five” personality factors were substantially and comparably heritable with about 50% of the variance in these personality constructs being associated with genetic factors; however little or no influence due to shared family environment was found among these twin pairs3.

  • Cognitive ability (a genetic determined trait) is  related to leadership and meta-analytic results reported by Lord, DeVader, and Alliger (1986) indicate that the mean true correlation of measures of intelligence and leadership is .504.
  • The most extensive meta-analytic studies conducted on the subject (Ilies, Gerhardt, & Le, 2004) concludes that 17% of leadership emergence can be attributed to inheritance based on the “Big Five” personality factors5.
  • In a new 2013 study employing twin design methods from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers estimated the heritability of leadership role occupancy at 24%6.

If leaders truly understood the neural wiring of the interests, values and motives of talent and tried to use this information to lead them more effectively they would be able to unlock some of the mystery surrounding effective leadership.

The four career path preferences summarized below are theory based and measured in one of our assessments called the Career Profile Inventory. Understanding the primary interests, values and motives underlying each can help all of us better understand what our “signature passions” might be–much can be attributed to both genetic predispositions and developed skills. These “paths” also provide some insight about how best to reward and recognize talent to enhance engagement and retention.

Understanding the Four Career Path Preferences

MANAGERIAL — This career path preference is best characterized by those interested in continually moving vertically up the organizational ladder into traditional supervisory and managerial positions with increasing spans of control, responsibility, power, and authority.

Typical career anchors and motives of these individuals include power, influence, leadership, control, task accomplishment, status, managerial competence, and directing others. Appropriate organizational rewards for these individuals might include: upward mobility, promotion, special perks, titles, and organizational symbols of success (e.g., profit sharing incentive plans, company car, stock options, financial planning, expense account, club memberships, etc.).

SPECIALIST/INDEPENDENT CONTRIBUTOR — This career path preference is best characterized by those interested in remaining in one career field or profession for much of their working life. Along the way, these specialists are able to highly refine their technical knowledge, skills and abilities. These individuals are less interested in moving up as they are in becoming the expert and having autonomy to do things their way.

Typical career anchors and motives of these individuals include technical and functional competence, expertise, skill mastery, service to others, independence, affiliation and security. Appropriate organizational rewards for these individuals might include: job enrichment, continuing education, membership in professional associations, recognition, motivational programs, organizational benefits, sabbaticals, tenure and job security.

ENTREPRENEURIAL – This career path preference is best characterized by those interested in rapid job, career, and occupational changes over short periods of time. These individuals enjoy working on diverse projects, tasks, assignments, and business ventures with measurable and visible outcomes.

Typical career anchors and motives of these individuals include: entrepreneurship, achievement, autonomy, variety, risk, challenge, change, freedom from organizational constraints, flexibility, creativity and diversity. Appropriate organizational rewards for these individuals might include flexible schedules, short-term projects, independent contracts, consulting assignments, start-up operations, job sharing, and bonuses.

GENERALIST – This career path preference is best characterized by those who gradually change jobs and career over time but utilize the foundation of previously acquired skills, knowledge and abilities. These generalists generally move either laterally or upwards increasing their breadth of knowledge and experience along the way. Individuals who follow this career path tend to prefer new challenges and assignments that will enable them to grow and develop professionally. This career path preference is particularly well suited for project and program management assignments within organizations.

Typical career anchors and motives of these individuals include professional growth and personal development, learning, coaching, developing others, and innovation. Appropriate organizational rewards for these individuals might include cross training, job rotation, project management, tuition and educational reimbursement and coaching and mentorship assignments.

Of course we find combinations of these drivers. For example those of you high in both “specialist” and “entrepreneurial” anchors are likely to be attracted to external consulting. Others with a combination of “managerial” and “generalist” love “fix it” assignments and short term challenges before moving on to another leadership opportunity.

So, stop teasing that specialist/independent contributor about leadership roles–they really just want to practice their craft and be left alone.

Oh, and stop trying to lead them too! You will only frustrate yourself and drive your key talent away….Be well….

  1. Avery, R.D., Zhang, Z. Avolio, B. & Kreuger, R.F. (2007). Developmental and gentic determinants of leadership role occupancy among women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 693-706 []
  2. Bouchard, T.J. & Loehlin, J.C. (2001). Genes, evolution and personality. Behavior Genetics, 21, 243-273 []
  3. Loehlin, J. C., McCrae, R. R., Costa, P. T., & John, O. P. (1998). Heritability of common and measure-specific components of the big five personality factors. Journal of Research in Personality, 32, 431-453 []
  4. Lord, R. G., DeVander, C.L., Alliger, G.M. (1986). A meta-analysis of the relations between personality traits and leadership perceptions: An application of validity generalization procedures. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61, 402-410 []
  5. Ilies, R., Gerhardt, M., & Le, H. (2004). Individual differences in leadership emergence: Integrating meta analytic findings and behavioral genetics estimates. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 12, 207-219 []
  6. De Neve, J. et al. (2013). Born to lead? A twin design and genetic association study of leadership role occupancy.  The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 45-60 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, and is a guest lecturer at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Leadership Development, Selection

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