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GENETIC BASIS OF LEADERSHIP

A Literature Review

Author(s): Radhika Joshi


Student Number: 500783
Tutor: Django Jaspers
Degree Programme: International Bachelor of Psychology
Faculty: Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences
University: Erasmus University Rotterdam
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Abstract
This literature review explored the extent to which leadership is affected by genetic factors.
Various articles were studied in an attempt to determine the genetic influence on leadership
role occupancy and the personality factors associated with leadership and leadership styles. It
was found that there is a significant influence on leadership role occupancy, leadership styles
and the personality factors associated with leadership. The moderating roles of dispositional
hope, age and gender were also investigated, and it was determined that all three substantially
moderate the influence of genetic factors on leadership.

Introduction
A recurring debate in psychology regarding “nature vs nurture” is being increasingly applied
to leadership. The role of a leader is an important one in determining the performance of
groups and organizations and exists almost everywhere, whether formally or informally.
Recently, a meta-analysis by Vukasović and Bratko (2015) showed that about 40% of
differences in personality amongst individuals can be explained by genetics; in light of this,
social scientists have begun studying leadership from a genetic perspective.

The genetic study of leadership has been indirectly proposed before; Galton (1869) in
his book, Hereditary Genius, proposed a twofold notion of leadership – the first being that
there are remarkable individuals that have the exclusive skill of leadership; and the second
being that this skill cannot be developed, and is a part of the genetic makeup of said
individual, and can be inherited. With the advancement in technology, in-depth studies of the
genetic foundation of leadership are being conducted to address the role the genome plays in
various aspects of leadership.

Examining the role of genetics in leadership is quite beneficial; for one, we will be
able to determine to what extent are leaders born and to what extent they are made. Secondly,
psychologists will be able to partially predict who might be fit for a leadership role, which
will help organizations in choosing right people for the right jobs. We can also study the
pattern of inheritance of leadership, and predict who can emerge as a leader.

In this paper, we will explore the effect of genetic factors on a few broad aspects of
leadership. First, we will look at leadership role occupancy, which is the predisposition of an
individual to occupy a leadership role. Then, we will look at a few personality variables
involved in leadership and the adoption of a particular leadership style. Additionally, we will
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also look at a few factors that moderate the genetic influence on leadership. With these, we
will attempt to find an answer to the question, “what are the genetic determinants of
leadership?”

Main Body

Leadership Role Occupancy

A study by Arvey, Rotundo, Johnson, Zhang & McGue (2006) investigated whether
leadership role occupancy and personality variables share common genetic influences. It was
found that a significant amount of variance in leadership role occupancy was due to genetic
factors; it also found the variances in inheritance of both personality traits and leadership role
occupancy could be accounted for by similar genetic factors. However, the researchers were
unable to conclude that the genetic influences on leadership role occupancy were expressed
through, or moderated by personality variables. They were also unable to point to any
specific genes or genetic mutations which could influence leadership role occupancy.

To study whether leadership role occupancy depends on a particular gene, an


experiment was conducted by De Neve et al., (2012). According to the results, there was a
significant genetic influence in leadership role occupancy. The experimenters also performed
an association analysis on the genetic markers (DNA sequences detectable on a chromosome
and used to identify individuals) to test whether any of them are related to leadership role
occupancy; it was found that a single nucleotide substitution on the gene CHRNB3 is
associated with leadership role occupancy – this increases the chances of occupying a
leadership role (De Neve et al., 2012).

In essence, it was concluded that leadership role occupancy is influenced partially by


an individual’s genome. Nevertheless, the studies did not take into account the individual
differences in leadership role occupancy caused due to non-shared environmental factors
such as friends, teachers, etc.

Leadership Styles and Personality Factors

Once in a leadership role, individuals may adopt different leadership styles (Newstrom &
Davis, 1993). Popular examples of leadership styles are transactional leadership (in which
rewards are used to motivate followers) and transformational leadership (in which the leader
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inspires the followers to be motivated) (Burns, 1978). In this section, we will discuss the
heritability of these, as well as the personality factors related to leadership.

The experiment by Johnson et al., (1999) concluded that 48% variance in


transactional leadership and 59% variance in transformational leadership was due to heritable
components; this suggests involvement of certain genes. However, 3 of the dimensions of
transactional leadership (laissez-faire leadership, contingent reward, and passive
management-by-exception leadership) given by Avolio, Bass & Jung (1995), do not have any
genetic components. Since they are about two-thirds of all dimensions of transactional
leadership, it was concluded that individual differences in transactional leadership were due
to environmental factors (Johnson et al., 1999).

A meta-analysis by Illies, Gerhardt & Le (2004) examined the personality factors


related to emergent leaders – people with certain who are likely to emerge as leaders. The
study found that a moderate amount of variance in leadership emergence was due to genetic
factors. They concluded this was a cumulative effect of specific traits- intelligence and
personality. According to Loehlin (1992), both intelligence and personality traits are quite
heritable. Thus, the heritability of these specific traits mediates the genetic variance in
emergent leadership (Illies et al., 2004)

In essence, the studies showed that leadership styles have a partial genetic component
(Johnson et al., 1999). It was also concluded that emerging as a leader also depends on
heritability factors as well as the moderately heritable personality variables such as the big
five personality factors and intelligence; However, there are other heritable and non-heritable
factors that moderate the heritability and expression of genetic factors regarding leadership;
these will be discussed in the following section.

Moderating Factors

As once said by Burns (2003), a leader takes into account both the current and future needs
and desires, instills a sense of hope that the followers can achieve the changes they want.
Hope has been studied as a personality variable by Snyder, Sympson, Ybasco, Borders,
Babyak & Higgins (1996).

A study by Chaturvedi et al. (2011) concluded that dispositional hope is significantly


influenced by genetic factors. The results also found that the genetic components of
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transformational leadership and hope overlap significantly, leading to a conclusion that


dispositional hope moderates the variance in transformational leadership accounted for by
genetic factors. A positive relationship was found between the two; the researchers concluded
that leaders who were predisposed to be hopeful would more likely adopt a transformational
leadership style. The sample did not consider the differences in leadership qualities due to
age and gender it consisted solely of female twins within a narrow age group.

Gender has been shown to influence leadership styles; females usually adopt a
democratic or participative leadership style (Eagly & Johnson, 1990). The role of age is not
so simple to determine - due to the variations in environmental factors, the age at which men
and women assume a leadership role, the type of leadership style they assume differs
significantly (Chaturvedi, Zyphur, Arvey, Avolio & Larsson, 2012)

A study by Chaturvedi et al. (2012) explored the moderating effects of age and gender
on emergent leadership, using self-report measures. It was observed that while there is a
significant heritable component of emergent leadership, it is not significantly different
amongst men and women while they are growing up. At a different stage of life, the heritable
component does not change for men with age, but for women, it is at peak during mid-career,
and significantly lowers thereafter. Thus, the researchers concluded that genetically speaking,
women are as likely to emerge as leaders as men. However, the effect of the genetic
component declines as women grow older. It must be highlighted that this study was done
using self-report measures, which can be subject to bias.

In essence, it can be concluded that the effect of moderators on the genetic component
of leadership is quite significant. Dispositional hope moderates the role genetic factors play in
transformational leadership, at least in women (Chaturvedi et al., 2011). The interaction of
age and gender also considerably influences how men and women are genetically prone to
emerge as leaders, as seen in the study by Chaturvedi at al. (2012).

Discussion

In this literature review, we explored whether variations in leadership could be explained, at


least in part, by genetic components. We first studied leadership role occupancy; then, we
explored the personality factors associated with leadership, and the leadership styles
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individuals employ to lead their people. Lastly, we examined the moderating effects of
dispositional hope, age, and gender on the heritability of leadership.

We found that a significant amount of variation in leadership role occupancy can be


accounted for by genetic factors (Arvey et al., 2006). This genetic influence results from a
single substitution of a nucleotide in the genome of an individual, and significantly increases
the chances of being predisposed to occupy a leadership role (De Neve et al., 2012). A
drawback of the sample of the experiment conducted by Arvey et al. (2006) must be
highlighted here; it was composed only of male twins, and thus cannot be generalized.
Furthermore, the studies by Arvey et al. (2006) and De Neve et al. (2012) did not elaborate
on the effects of shared and non-shared environmental factors, such as social roles, friends,
etc. on leadership role occupancy

Experiments conducted to study the genetic influence on transactional and


transformational leadership found that they are significantly affected by hereditary factors;
however, transformational leadership is more dependent on genetic factors. (Johnson et al.,
1999). Transformational leadership also shares common genetic factors with leadership role
occupancy Li et al. (2012) - this may lead to a conclusion that the predisposition to become a
leader, and further, a transformational leader, is more firmly rooted in genetics than any other
leadership style. A drawback of the study by Johnson et al. (1999) is the small sample size of
monozygotic twins as compared to dizygotic twins, so the results cannot be compared
properly. Additionally, the big five personality factors and intelligence are correlated with
genotype of an individual, and are thus partly heritable (Illies et al., 2004). Based on this, an
assumption can be made that an individual perceived as intelligent, open to experiences,
extraverted, conscientious, agreeable and emotionally stable is more likely to become a
leader.

Leadership is also influenced by hope which moderates the influence of genetic


factors on transformational leadership (Chaturvedi et al., 2011). A positive relationship
between dispositional hope and heritability of transformational leadership was found
(Chaturvedi et al. 2011) – thus we may presume that an individual who is genetically
predisposition to be hopeful more likely encourage the followers to believe in themselves and
motivate them to work hard for something bigger than themselves. This result, however,
cannot be generalized; the sample consisted of only female twins within a narrow age gap.
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Nevertheless, gender and age are important non-heritable factors that moderate the
relationship between genetic factors and leadership. Together, they suggest that a complex
relationship exists between how genetic factors and the self-perception of emerging as leader
(Chaturvedi et al., 2012). During the early years, men and women show no differences in
leadership emergence – as they age, this remains the same for men, but changes for women.
Women tend to perceive themselves as an emergent leadership mostly during the middle of
their career; after that, there is a significant decline. An explanation suggested that while
there are no differences in how genes influence one’s self-perception as a leader, the genetic
influence seems to decline for women after a point. However, with the changing society and
lesser emphasis on social roles, this result may differ in replications of the study by
Chaturvedi et al. (2012). Since this study used self-report measures, it may be subjected to
bias about abilities of oneself.

In conclusion, the evidence provided by majority of the studies indicates a


positive role of genetics in accounting for differences in leadership. This shows that the
predisposition to being a leader is somewhat heritable. Even though there are environmental
factors that influence various aspects of being a leader, we can conclude that leadership is a
complex interplay between nature and nurture.

Limitations and Future Research

Our literature review has two major limitations that need to be corrected. Firstly, it mainly
consisted of studies that employ twin studies, in which effects of shared and non-shared
environments can affect the final results. For example, a phenomenon which is attributed to
genetic influence may be due to differences in environmental factors such as extra-curricular
activities, and vice-versa. Secondly, the number of main sources used to answer our research
question are few, and do not represent the entirety of the literature in this field. There may be
some contradictions that we failed to consider which may affect out final conclusion.

Future research in this field should focus on controlling the effects of shared and non-
shared environmental factors (by using study designs like adoption studies, family studies,
etc.) to concretely be able to determine the extent to which leadership is rooted in genetics.
Future studies can also focus on determining the particular gene or genes which influence
leadership, which will enable the study of heritability patterns of leadership.
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