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Do Genetics Play a Role in Leadership?

Study finds genetic markers associated with leadership and sheds light on the health effects of being a leader

Lauren Everett

Do genes have any influence over your ability to lead others? Numerous studies conducted in the last decade have identified genes that may influence the propensity to occupy a leadership role.

Now, a new study has offered further evidence to support the connection between genetics and leadership. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), identified nine significant genetic markers related to leadership. For the first time, this research also provide new insights into the link between leadership and physical and mental health.

"Since the late 1980s, studies on 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 using the whole genome to identify the genetic variants more commonly found in leaders and their connection to the leaders' wellbeing," said Song Zhaoli, study leader and associate professor from the Department of Management & Organization at the National University of Singapore, in a press release. According to the study authors, this study presents the largest whole-genome investigation of leadership phenotypes to date.

Researchers collected genetic and occupational data from more than 280,0000 people of European descent. They sourced this data from the UK Biobank, as well as other cohorts in the US. In addition, they pulled information related to leadership roles and demands from the UK Standard Occupation Classification and the United States Occupational Information Network

The study found both pros and cons with holding a leadership position and how it may affect your health. On the plus side, being in a leadership position correlated with low levels of anxiety and depression, and high levels of subjective well-being. This could be a result of leadership benefits like a higher salary and more control over their work. However, the study found negative health effects linked to leadership as well. What could be considered the most significant finding is that the top genetic variant associated with leadership is also associated with an increased risk of bipolar disorder. The researchers also found a link between leadership and higher body mass index and shortened longevity after controlling the effect of income.  “Using genome studies, we can put aside the health effects that a high income brings and uncover leadership’s hidden side effects on health,” said Song. 

The study authors acknowledge that leadership cannot be fully determined by a handful of genes; rather, leadership is “a very complex phenomenon that may be affected by tens of genes, each of which has a small effect.” Song adds, “Both nature and nurture matter for leadership.”

 The key takeaway here is that individuals in a leadership role, especially those at a more senior level, should make it a priority to live a healthy, active lifestyle and find ways of relieving stress.

Because this study focused on data from individuals of European descent, the next step for the research team is to conduct similar whole genome studies on Asian populations.