Researchers in Singapore have completed a large genome-wide association study (GWAS) examining the genetic basis of leadership traits based on supervisory and managerial positions and demands. Recently published in PNAS, the study, which included UK Biobank data from nearly 250,000 individuals of European descent of which about 18 percent were leaders, identified nine significant genomic loci linked to leadership traits.
The researchers reported positive correlations between leadership traits and positive indicators of health and well-being such as low levels of anxiety and depression, as well as links to intelligence, extraversion, and risk tolerance. Conversely, in individuals in more senior roles, they also found correlations between leadership roles and negative indicators, such as risk of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and frequency of alcohol intake.
Furthermore, after accounting for genetic variance related to measures of socioeconomic status, the authors found a correlation between leadership and shortened longevity, cardiovascular disease, body mass index, and low physical activity. The authors speculate that these negative effects may be due to higher levels of chronic stress in some leaders.
The results support previous twin studies that suggested a strong heritability for leadership traits,1,2 though those studies had not identified specific genetic variants associated with leadership.
A better understanding of how leadership traits and well-being are shaped by genetics could help existing and future leaders better manage their health and well-being at the genetic level to ensure long-term success. However, more research is needed to evaluate the causal associations to leadership traits.
“We caution against simplistic interpretations of our findings as advocating genetic determinism,” wrote the authors, highlighting that the nature of leadership is complex and that environment also influences the heritability of leadership. “A more complete understanding of human behaviors should take various forms of interplay between nature and nurture into consideration.”
- Arvey RD, Zhang Z, Avolio BJ, Krueger RF. Developmental and genetic determinants of leadership role occupancy among women. J Appl Psychol. 2007;92(3):693-706. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.92.3.693
- Arvey RD, Rotundo M, Johnson W, Zhang Z, McGuea M. The determinants of leadership role occupancy: Genetic and personality factors. The Leadership Quarterly. 2006;17(1):1-20. dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.10.009