Career & Leadership Market Research | Review #4


Are Outstanding Leaders Born or Made?
By 14 Contributing Researchers

Based on the article published in, in April, 2017

Review Summary by Khushi Modani
Market Research Intern, Adaptive Instruction

I am Khushi Modani, a student pursuing BBA in PES University, Bengaluru. I have a keen interest in Human Resource Management and Marketing. In my free time, you can catch me reading a book, or binging on my favorite web-series. I am also passionate about theatre and writing, and was the editor for my school magazine. Currently, I am working for Adaptive Instruction as a Market Research Intern.

This is a summary of a research paper by various researchers published by the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 2017. Leadership has multiple definitions, none universally agreed upon. However, good leaders often exhibit a set of characteristics that is believed to set them apart as leaders. It is then safe, to some extent, to determine the potency of a candidate to exhibit good leadership skills, using these traits as a reasonably accurate metric. Common traits that “good leaders” are believed to possess are integrity, compassion, and confidence.

Theories on Leadership
There are two theories that describe how these leadership skills manifest themselves in individuals. The Great Man theory publicized by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s, suggests that these traits are intrinsic and are largely dependent on genetics. The antithesis to this is the other popular theory; acquiring leadership traits takes place almost exclusively through exposure – i.e., leadership skills can be acquired.

Debate Conducted
The Academic Leadership Fellows Program (ALFP) attempted to resolve the debate between whether it is likelier that the leadership skills of an individual are inborn or obtained. They appointed a group and the members were assigned to debate whether leadership traits are intrinsic or extrinsic – at random. Months of research were put into the cases presented by each side, and their respective arguments are presented here.

Group 1:
The first group was asked to argue that leaders are born.

Study 1:
One of the facets of their argument was research performed on twins – both identical and fraternal. Twins share a lot of genetic material, so it is easy to conduct research related to genetics on them, especially when it has to do with finding correlations in between genes and traits.

Results Obtained
The study found that there is roughly a 30% correlation between genetic factors and the presence of leadership traits in an individual. Only a 10% correlation was found between the shared environmental conditions and the presence of traits. The same study went on to elaborate that the common traits of leadership were largely dependent on the rs490 genetic marker, which is a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) residing on the 8th chromosome, on the neuronal acetylcholine receptor.
Many twins are known to have been famous leaders in the past – for example, Mark and Scott Kelly are both NASA Astronauts and retired navy captains, and Julian and Joaquin Castro are respectively the former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a US congressman.

Study 2:
Another study was conducted on the three-spined stickleback fish, a fish species that is well-known for large variations in behavior when it comes to exploration of new areas. Some are bold when it comes to exploration, others are shy and prefer to follow the leader’s suit. The researchers formed pairs of stickleback fish. Each pair consisted of one fish that had naturally (“naturally” here referring to “without human intervention”) exhibited bolder traits during foraging, and one fish that had been shyer. The study pushed the fish to swap their roles – that is, make the shyer fish show initiative, and the bolder fish to follow in their footsteps, and were rewarded in doing so. Their performance was measured by the amount of food they were able to gather.

Results Obtained
The experiment showed that when the fish swapped roles, the bolder fish usually found it easier to assume the role of follower, whereas the shyer fish were underperforming when they were encouraged to swap roles. This shows that it is extremely likely that the leadership traits were inborn and tough to acquire.

Group 2:
The second group played the role of arguing that leaders are made.

Their counterarguments to the points put forth by the first group are mainly to do with the inaccuracy of evaluating traits using twins as a sample, and that numerous records of historical figures exist who did not have a family history of good leaders. They also argue that most of the traits that are considered to be common to good leaders are actually characteristics that can be developed as a result of real-life experiences. Due to the dearth of research done on this subject, the researchers rely heavily on statistics derived from the studies done on twins. The study almost consistently only found a 30% correlation between genetic differences and differences in the ability to lead others. More recent studies have further reduced this number to a mere 24%, specifically with the rs490 marker.

The other flaws pointed out in the study were that the twins may have been exposed to a seemingly similar environment – however, due to the differences in perception of the worlds from both the twins may contribute a significant random variable that affects the study. Moreover, twins are a rare case and do not represent an entire population – hence, studies performed on them cannot be generalized to a bigger sample case or population. The group goes on to say that many of the great leaders in the past have not come from a family of leaders. Walt Disney, having no history of great leadership in his family and yet managing to make a commercial success founding Disney, is a good example, as is John D. Rockefeller Sr., the founder of Standard Oil, the largest oil refinery in the world.

A research study (Ericsson et al; 1993) demonstrated that practice and training for were far more effective than having inherent talent for music – as a matter of fact, it was considered responsible for about 80% of the difference in outcomes between elite professional musicians and committed, talented amateurs. A parallel can be drawn between this musical skill and all other skills including leadership skills.

Having seen the cases presented by both parties, it is probably safe to assume that both factors – an individual’s inherent traits and their life experiences – contribute to the traits that are characteristic to leaders.

Link to the original publication:
Are Outstanding Leaders Born or Made?