It's one of the field's classic questions: Are leaders born or made?
A new study attempted to answer that by examining whether people who have a certain gene, the dopamine transporter DAT1, also hold down managerial roles.
Researchers at Kansas State University and the National University of Singapore chose to look at that particular gene because past research has shown the body's dopamine systems are linked with things like motivation, impulsivity and self-regulation: all factors that could have an impact on leadership.
What the new study found was that people who had a version of the gene, called the 10-repeat allele, were significantly more likely to have been rule-breakers as teenagers, doing things like skipping class or underage drinking.
There's a reason that finding is revelatory. According to Wendong Li, an assistant professor at Kansas State University and a co-author of the study, past research has shown a link between youthful rule-breaking and future leadership potential. That means the gene they studied could, in theory, have a leadership connection.
"All those moderate rule-breaking behaviors can make you explore boundaries, develop new knowledge and also new skills," Li said in an interview. "And all that newly acquired knowledge and skills can make you more likely to become a leader in the future."
As with most research, however, the takeaway was hardly so clearcut. The study also found that those with the 10-repeat allele were less likely to have something called "proactive personality," or the aptitude for taking initiative and persevering toward their goals. That somewhat contradicted their other finding, Li said, as proactive personalities have been clearly linked with leadership potential in past research.
The study used two data samples (one with roughly 300 people, another with about 13,000) that gathered information on their DNA, personality traits, behavior and professional history. Though the researchers uncovered those two interesting genetic links, they didn't find the crown jewel of correlations — which would have been if study participants with the specific allele were also the ones holding top managerial roles.
Li said he wasn't disappointed, or surprised, the research didn't show that clear link. "A gene is not magically going to make you become a leader," he says. Still, he finds it worth examining the many ways in which a person's overall genetic makeup, combined with other biological factors and, of course, environment and experience, can have some influence on who ends up taking charge and who doesn't.
Li also posits that someday people may be as curious to know about their genetic propensity for leadership as they already are about their genetic propensity for health issues.
He does not, however, think employers should — or ever will — examine employees' genes when searching for future leaders. In fact, he says research like his may even serve an opposite purpose: It can be a reminder that there is incredible variation among employees, and bringing out each worker's best usually requires personalized management approaches.
That's not to say we'll customize our management practices according to people's genes, Li explains. "But what we can do is take our differences more seriously — either employees' personality traits or their intelligence or interests — to customize our work schedules, our training and our development."