Genetic differences are significantly associated with the likelihood that people take on managerial responsibilities, researchers say.
The study by researchers from UCL (University College London) is the first to identify a specific DNA sequence associated with the tendency for individuals to occupy a leadership position.
Using a large twin sample, the international research team, which included academics from Harvard, NYU, and the University of California, estimate that a quarter of the observed variation in leadership behaviour between individuals can be explained by genes passed down from their parents.
“We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations,” lead author Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve said.
“The conventional wisdom – that leadership is a skill – remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait,” De Neve said.
To find the genotype, Dr De Neve and his colleagues analysed data from two large-scale samples in the United States, available through the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and the Framingham Heart Study.
They compared genetic samples of approximately 4,000 individuals with information about jobs and relationships, finding that in both surveys there was a significant association between rs4950 and leadership.
Leadership behaviour was measured by determining whether or not individuals occupy supervisory roles in the workplace.
The team found that although acquiring a leadership position mostly depends on developing skills, inheriting the leadership trait can also play an important role.
“As recent as last August, Professor John Antonakis, who is known for his work on leadership, posed the question: ‘is there a specific leadership gene?’” Dr De Neve said.
“This study allows us to answer yes – to an extent. Although leadership should still be thought of predominantly as a skill to be developed, genetics - in particular the rs4950 genotype - can also play a significant role in predicting who is more likely to occupy leadership roles,” Dr De Neve added.
He concluded that more research was needed to understand the ways in which rs4950 interacted with other factors, such as a child's learning environment, in the emergence of leadership.
The study has been published online in Leadership Quarterly.