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The Genetic Makeup of a Leader
Is there such a thing as a natural-born leader? A new study sheds light on the genetic influences on leadership and found a surprising connection with bipolar disorder and alcohol consumption
By Ella Chen
Individuals in leadership positions are more likely to have certain genes — and not all of them are good. An increased tendency to drink alcohol — which has been shown to cause cancer — and an increased risk of bipolar disorder are among the negative health indicators associated with leaders, according to findings from a new study.
Identifying these specific genes helps us understand how our biology influences occupational health and well-being, and specifically, how that plays out among people in leadership positions.
“Our findings provide insights into the heredity of leadership positions and also the shared genetic underpinnings between the leadership position itself and one’s general health,” says Li Wendong, Associate Professor at Department of Management at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, and a co-author of the study.
“Our research continues the biological story of leadership. Since the late 1980s, studies using twins have shown that differences in people’s genetic make-up account for 30 percent of differences in whether they hold leadership roles. Now we have gone a step further in and conducted genomic studies using a vast database to identify genes related to leadership,” adds Prof Li, who notes that the study has implications for leaders and prospective leaders in managing their health and well-being for their long-term career development.
“A significant reason why our findings matter is that leaders’ well-being affects their behaviours, which may influence the performance and well-being of their subordinates, teams, and organisations. The implications arising from a leader’s health can be vast,” he says.
Diving Deeper Beyond Twin Studies
The research team, which were led by of Prof. Li, Prof. Song Zhaoli at the National University of Singapore and Prof. Fan Qiao at Duke-NUS Medical School, conducted the study using data from the U.K. Biobank, the largest public genetic and health database in the world. Researchers extracted genetic and occupational information of over 240,000 individuals of European ancestry. They also tapped on the U.K. Standard Occupation Classification and U.S. Occupational Information Network for information related to leadership roles and managing demands.
Leadership has been an important and classic topic in genetic research since the early 19th century, when modern human genetics was first formed as a scientific field.
Modern genetics research on leadership appeared much later using the classic twin approach. Twin studies are studies conducted on identical or fraternal twins. They aim to reveal the relative importance of environmental and genetic influences. Twin research is considered a key tool in behavioural genetics and in content fields, from biology to psychology.
The new study, titled Genetics, leadership position, and well-being: An Investigation with a large-scale GWAS, furthered previous areas of inquiry by providing results from a whole-genome exploration of leadership. It unravelled genetic correlations between leadership and known measures of well-being and health. The study also considered other socioeconomic measures such as income and education so that what was revealed was a truer picture of leaders’ genetic profiles.
Watch Out at the Top
The study brought to light possible unique genetic associations between well-being and leadership. It found that genetic influences associated with leadership position may be detrimental to well-being. This is in contrast to previous research that showed a positive correlation between leadership and general health and well-being indicators and revealed a fundamental reason why holding a leadership position is not always beneficial to one’s health and well-being.
After adjusting for the effects of income and education, holding leadership positions was genetically linked to a higher Body Mass Index, an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and further reduced longevity.
“The high psychological demands embedded in holding leadership positions — chronic stressors — might play a role because they stimulate psycho-biological stress responses, including changes in fat metabolism and cardiovascular function, which are detrimental to health in the long run.” says Prof. Li.
In other words, leaders may be genetically pre-disposed to develop the above stress-induced diseases and conditions, but the stress involved in being a leader can trigger or exacerbate such an impact.
“We are the first to find genetic variants linked to both leadership and bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.” — Prof. Li Wendong
One of the most relevant and surprising genetic markers this study found to be associated with leadership is the genetic variant linked to an increased risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
“While those with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia may have some advantages to become leaders, we are the first to find genetic variants linked to both leadership and bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” says Prof. Li.
Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, is a mental health condition that can cause mood swings of various severity, ranging from emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). While most people diagnosed with bipolar disorder will experience some emotional symptoms between episodes, some may not experience any.
Prior research on bipolar disorder concludes that it is a mixed blessing in leaders. On the one hand, leadership studies found bipolar disorder to be linked to positive traits of high intelligence, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Other research shows it can negatively affect one’s job performance.
Also observed in the study is a genetic connection between leadership and an increase in alcohol consumption — an unhealthy behaviour that has been shown to cause cancer.
Personal Traits Count
Aside from strictly genetic considerations, the research team tested genetic correlations between leadership position and a set of observable personal traits that are traditionally related to leadership: intelligence, risk tolerance, and height. The results suggested that the genes that are believed to drive leadership may also be related to these traits. In finding links between the traits and underlying genes in leaders, researchers think it is possible that these genes may carry genetic influences on leadership through many of these personal traits.
While genetic research into the role of leadership is in its infancy, the new study is an important step forward and is likely to shed light on the direction and scope of future studies in the field. “While certain genes can play a role in whether an individual turns out to be a leader or not, they may not end up expressing themselves. At the very least, they are not a determining factor in shaping the well-being of a leader. Behaviour and lifestyle can influence the expression of genes and improve the chances of good health in leaders. And good health is always an important asset to any organisation, no matter where leadership resides,” Prof. Li adds.