Recently, researchers announced that they have discovered the “Leadership Gene” – a genetic marker (otherwise known as rs4950) which seems to identify a person’s “innate predisposition” to occupy a “leadership role”. The report, in all of its scientific glory, can be found here: ScienceDirect.com – The Leadership Quarterly – Born to lead? A twin design and genetic association study of leadership role occupancy.
Since I am a “leadership guy”, I looked through this study and immediately noted a few things:
- Genetic studies have lots of big words.
- The folks who conducted this study seem to know their stuff when it comes to identifying genetic markers and conducting studies. Of course this is coming from a Political Science major who last took a biology class in the mid to late 80’s. (But I got a 5 on the AP Exam!)
- While they may also know their stuff about leadership – I am hesitant to call what they have found a “leadership gene” (as most media outlets have labeled it). My biggest issue lies with how they determined if someone was occupying a leadership role: by asking them if they were a supervisor or not!
I understand you need a “clean” definition for a good study. The researchers understood the limitations of such a definition, and made it very clear that “leadership role occupancy” is only one aspect of one type of leadership, and that environmental factors (such as training, for example) play a huge role in an individual’s development as a leader. Unfortunately, when a study like this hits the news, they don’t talk about the shift leader at your local fast food joint. Names like Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and Churchill get thrown about. Newspapers talk about whether your genetics will make you “Born to Rule”, or whether you will wind up as a “manager or a minion” (from the UK’s Independent).
As much as that hype bothers me, it is nothing compared to the thought of how this type of information will play out. Will companies start testing employees before investing time and money in their development (laws against genetic discrimination notwithstanding)? Will the question, “Do I really have what it takes?” have an actual answer? (Note: It already does – you do.) Are you a “real” leader if you don’t have rs4950 in your genetic code? Like any good research effort, this one has identified the need for more research, but I wonder to what end? Wouldn’t it be better to research the outwardly focused, “teachable” characteristics of leaders and leadership rather than further identifying genetic markers of leaders after the fact? I like to think so.