Is There a Leadership Gene?

Subsequent to the mapping of the human genome, a project completed just over a decade ago, we have seen a number of human traits linked to heredity and one of the more recent is the quality of leadership. Quality may not be the appropriate word here. After all, Kim Il Sung, Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan and Idi Amin Dada Oumee are each technically defined as leaders.

Before we go further, I would like to share this definition of leadership as put forward by Dr. Paul Hersey. Dr. Hersey defines leadership as “working with and through others to achieve objectives.”

While some leaders inherit their leadership role, for example, the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II and North Korea’s Kim Il Sung (apologies to Her Royal Highness), to suggest that the trait of leadership is passed down through genetic material is a bit of a stretch.

In a recent study by University College London, which tested DNA samples from 4000 donors, concluded that those possessing the rs4900 genotype were 25 percent more likely to hold a leadership role. The study also revealed that roughly 50 percent of the human population possess this genotype, which may explain why we live in a dog-eat-dog world, but offers less than convincing proof that leaders are born, not made.

Even the proponents of this position acknowledge that other factors are in play. As Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, spokesman for the University College London research team acknowledged, experience and environment play a greater role.

I have both feet firmly planted in the camp which believes that great leaders are made, not born, while at the same time conceding that natural talent inherited or not, can help the process of creating a leader. There are plenty of studies just as convincing as Dr. Neve’s to support the position that leaders are made not born.

Developing the Talent

Honing leadership skills is a process that can be aided by:

  • Reflecting critically on your past behavior, knowing your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses without prejudice, much in the way a juror would review evidence against an accused.
  • Work diligently to change the behaviors not conforming to your role as a leader.
  • Cultivate friendships with people who want the best for you and are not only capable, but willing, to be completely honest with you to further that goal.
  • Learn to listen to others with an honest expectation to learn something new.
  • Understand that great leaders inspire then move out of the way because true leadership is about guidance and support.
  • Have the courage to acknowledge when you are wrong or mistaken. This is not a sign of weakness but of strength.
  • Periodically, assess your progress and make any adjustments necessary.

These suggestions are only a few of many ways to improve leadership skills. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of additional suggestions on how to improve your leadership skills in the pages of self-help books, scholarly papers, and of course the ubiquitous Internet.

One could make the argument that the very existence of all these leadership tomes, white papers and web pages is proof in itself that leadership is an acquired skill.

I am going to make this bold observation. It is not necessary to know if leadership is an inherited trait or an acquired skill. We all know that people with an inherent talent can choose to develop or not develop that talent. We all know people with an ear for music, a penchant for drawing or a great singing voice. Do these same individuals automatically transform into world-class musicians, famous artists or singing sensations. Of course not!

I believe it this to be equally true of leaders. Regardless of our view with regard to the origins of leadership ability, I believe we can all concede that it is for naught unless the trait is nurtured, developed and practiced.

In this sense, the idea of a born leader is nothing short of ludicrous. There are no born leaders anymore than there are born Olympic figure skating gold medalists, heavyweight world boxing champions, NBA MVPs and star NFL quarterbacks. These people worked very hard to achieve that status in their respective sports—and so it is with leadership.

There are a relatively few truly great leaders in a veritable sea of mediocre ones. The degree to which a leader achieves his greatness is directly proportional to the effort he/she puts into becoming a great leader. If talent is the seed, then hard work is the soil.

The debate will no doubt rage on but in my view it is an irrelevant one if you accept the premise that only hard work develops great leaders.

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