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(Some) leaders are born

/ 02:00 AM October 25, 2015

When Vince Lombardi said that leaders are made, not born, hope sprang eternal even among the great unwashed.  But then the debate continues – are leaders born or made?

Is it nature or nurture?  Can leadership qualities be passed from one generation to another?  Will the reins of government in the USA be handed down from one Bush to another to yet another one more Bush, or will someone trump the political cycle?  Will the Philippines experience leadership from persons other than those with surnames like Past presidents  Roxas, Marcos, Macapagal or Aquino?


Bruce Fairchild Barton was an American author, advertising executive and politician.  He said, “Great leaders are born, not made.  The saying is true to this degree, that no man can persuade people to do what he wants them to do, unless he genuinely likes people, and believes that what he wants them to do is to their own advantage.”

Leadership genes


Yes, Virginia, there’s such a thing as a leadership gene.  A few years ago, scientists found a gene that can influence whether a person is likely to rule or be ruled.  Scientists from University College London analyzed DNA samples from 4,000 people and discovered that people with so-called leadership genes are 25 per cent more likely to have a supervisory or managerial role at work.

“We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations,’ wrote lead scientist Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, in the journal Leadership Quarterly.

The team also analyzed two large US health studies for its research  – the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and the Framingham Heart Study.  Researchers found that great leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King may have possessed leadership genes.  A corollary finding is that leaders need not necessarily be good.  Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Genghis Khan were also great leaders in their own way.

Another finding is that in half the test population with leadership genes, environment, training and experience also played a greater role in their development as leaders.

Dr. De Neve added, “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 are more likely to occupy leadership roles.  More research is needed to understand the ways in which rs4950 interacted with other factors, such as a child learning environment.”

Nature or nurture

In the USA, a recent research by a leading military academic might have resolved the debate on whether it is nature or nurture that creates greatness.  The finding is that the most effective people really are a breed apart, and have brains that are wired differently than those of ordinary people.  This backs up the findings of the London scientists that some leaders are born.


Management expert Professor Sean Hannah, of Wake Forest University in the United States, said: “Once we have confirmed how the brain works in these leaders, we can create an ‘expert’ profile. This profile can help us develop brain-training methods to enhance brain functioning in leaders, such as the ‘neuro-feedback’ techniques that have been successfully used with elite athletes, concert musicians and financial traders.”

Hannah added, “The latest discovery could revolutionize how organizations assess and develop leaders, with brain scans being used to identify those with the ‘leadership gene’ early and train them accordingly.  It seems the most successful have more grey matter in places that control decision- making and memory, giving them a vital edge when it comes to making the right call.”

In the experiment, brain scans of 103 volunteers from the US Military Academy at West Point, ranging in rank from officer cadet to major, found that neural networks in the frontal and prefrontal lobes of those deemed ‘leaders’ were different from the rest. These areas of the brain are associated with self-regulation, decision-making and memory. The study was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Applied Psychology.

The research found that the “subject officers, 87 of whom were men, were found to be more psychologically complex if they had a more diverse sense of their own abilities and accomplishments as leaders. In addition to a series of questions, and physical and mental tests, half underwent ‘brain mapping’ – a quantitative electroencephalography scan. Using electrodes placed on 19 different locations on subjects’ heads, researchers were able to track activity in particular areas of the brain while the participant was at rest. Researchers also tested leadership and decision-making abilities in a hypothetical tactical military expedition. The participants had to lead their unit to interact with hostile and non-hostile civilians, enemy forces, the media and, eventually, the shooting down of a U.S. helicopter during an international humanitarian relief mission in Africa. Leaders who had a more complex sense of their leadership skills and greater neurological complexity were found to be more adaptive and effective leaders in these scenarios.”

Prof. Hannah, a retired Colonel with 26 years of experience in the U.S. Army, said,  “The results are a step toward finding out how effective and adaptable leaders not only think and act, but how their brains are wired to lead.”

Organizational implications

Like it or not, some leaders are born, not made. For the longest time I didn’t believe this. But Science has converted me. Our culture and upbringing made us want to believe that there is a “kernel of leadership”, perhaps a God-particle, in everyone. While there might be a bit of a leader deep inside everyone, I don’t agree that everyone can be a leader. People become leaders when circumstance steps in, when they step forward and when they are accepted as leaders by their followers.

In order to step forward, an individual needs to have the desire and drive to lead. Experts suggest that these factors are personality traits.  A prospective leader must be perceived as a leader by the followers.  One needs intelligence, physical attractiveness and extraversion – traits that followers usually look for in a leader.  It’s a fact that not all of us have these traits in our DNA and therefore will not be effective leaders despite profuse training.

But all is not lost. It doesn’t mean that organizations should stop training people. We need effective followers as well. Even followers or front liners must develop the ability to influence and use their innate or learned powers to achieve organizational goals. Not everyone can become a general or field commander, but there is ample room in this world for “small leaders.” Organizations need leaders who don’t lead from formal positions of power, but use influence and ability within a team.  Organizations in both public and private sectors must develop more effective, engaged and committed people, not just leaders in pedestals.

Science has already found a way to look into your DNA and determine leadership as well as criminal tendencies. Will society allow the separation of those with undesirable predispositions from the probable leaders and solid contributors even before the predispositions have become manifest?

For now, just stop believing that everyone can lead. But yes, everyone can be effective. For Sami Jo Small, Women’s Hockey’s three-time Olympian and five-time World Champion, “You don’t always get to choose the role you play, but you always get to choose how you play it.”

(Ernie is the 2013 Executive Director and 1999 President of the People Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP); Chair of the AMCHAM Human Capital Committee; and Co-Chair of ECOP’s TWG on Labor and Social Policy Issues. He also chairs the Accreditation Council for the PMAP Society of Fellows in People Management. He is President and CEO of EC Business Solutions and Career Center. Contact him at [email protected])

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