The hunt for a gene linked to lead­ers

Los Angeles Times - - WORK LIFE - By Jena McGre­gor

It is a clas­sic ques­tion: Are lead­ers born or made?

A new study at­tempted to pro­vide an an­swer by ex­am­in­ing whether peo­ple who have a cer­tain gene, the dopamine trans­porter known as DAT1, also hold man­age­rial roles.

Re­searchers at Kansas State Univer­sity and the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore looked at that gene be­cause previous re­search showed the body’s dopamine sys­tems to be linked to qual­i­ties such as mo­ti­va­tion, im­pul­siv­ity and self-reg­u­la­tion— all fac­tors that can af­fect lead­er­ship.

The study found that peo­ple who had a ver­sion of the gene, called the10-re­peat al­lele, were sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to have been rule-break­ers as teenagers, en­gag­ing in be­hav­iors such as skip­ping classes or un­der­age drink­ing.

There’s a rea­son that that find­ing is rev­e­la­tory. Ac­cord­ing to Wen­dong Li, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Kansas State Univer­sity and a co-au­thor of the study, previous re­search has found links be­tween youth­ful rule­break­ing and higher fu­ture lead­er­ship po­ten­tial. That means the gene that the re­searchers stud­ied could, in the­ory, have a lead­er­ship con­nec­tion.

“All those mod­er­ate rule­break­ing 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 take-away was hardly clear-cut. The study also found that those with the 10-re­peat al­lele were less likely to have some­thing called “proac­tive per­son­al­ity,” or an ap­ti­tude for tak­ing ini­tia­tive and per­se­ver­ing to­ward their goals. That­was in op­po­si­tion to the re­searchers’ other find­ing, Li said, be­cause proac­tive per­son­al­i­ties have been clearly linked with higher lead­er­ship po­ten­tial in past re­search.

The study used two data sam­ples (one with roughly 300 peo­ple and the other with about 13,000) and gath­ered in­for­ma­tion on their DNA, per­son­al­ity traits, be­hav­ior and pro­fes­sional his­to­ries.

Although there searchers un­cov­ered those two in­ter­est­ing ge­netic links, they did not find the crown jewel of cor­re­la­tions — that study par­tic­i­pants with the spe­cific al­lele were also more likely to hold top man­age­rial roles.

Li said he was not dis­ap­pointed or sur­prised that the re­search did not show a de­fin­i­tive link.

“A gene is not mag­i­cally go­ing to make you be­come a leader,” he said.

Still, he said, he finds it worth­while to ex­am­ine the many ways in which over­all ge­netic makeup, other bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tors, and en­vi­ron­ment and ex­pe­ri­ence can have some in­flu­ence on who ends up tak­ing charge and who does not.

Li posits that some­day, peo­ple may be as cu­ri­ous to know about their ge­netic propen­sity for lead­er­ship as they are about their ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tion for health prob­lems.

He does not think, how­ever, that em­ploy­ers should — or ever will— ex­am­ine em­ploy­ees’ genes when search­ing for fu­ture lead­ers. Jena McGre­gor writes a daily column an­a­lyz­ing lead­er­ship in the news for the Wash­ing­ton Post’s On Lead­er­ship sec­tion. Money Talk with Liz We­ston will now ap­pear in Satur­day’s Busi­ness sec­tion.

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