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The genetics of leadership

CHRNB3 gene associated with how likely a person is to be found occupying a leadership position

In 2013 an exciting scientific study identified a common variant in the CHRNB3 gene that is associated with how likely a person is to be found occupying a leadership position. How does this discovery challenge the belief that everyone has the potential to develop leadership skills and become an effective leader?

Genetic studies have already provided us with significant knowledge about how our personality traits, intelligence, interests and even values are formed. While genetic discovery is in its early days, the implications for leaders and HR practice are potentially enormous.

Of course, any genetic discovery needs to be viewed with some caution. Just because an individual has a particular variation in their DNA it doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily display the characteristics associated with it. When it comes to developing new skills, learning to play a musical instrument provides a good example of how practice and development can ‘overcome’ genetics.

Twin studies have also supported this perspective. These studies, which compare traits of identical twins with the same DNA with fraternal twins who share about 50% of their DNA, indicate that about 50% of an individual’s personality and leadership style is genetically driven. This could be seen as a positive finding for those that don’t possess the 'right' leadership DNA, potentially giving us all the opportunity to develop and change our leadership styles to better suit our environments.

But despite this, how long will it be before the recruitment and selection of leaders includes personality instruments that utilise genetic data? Significant genetic discoveries have already been made to explain traits such as empathy, emotional intelligence, creativity, extraversion, risk-taking and neuroticism. Could the identification of top talent be influenced by a person’s genetic makeup? Will standard security and health checks include genetic screening?

The prospect of people knowing their DNA composition, let alone needing it as part of an employment screening, may fill many people with horror. Yet it was only five years ago that the cost of analysing a person’s DNA was more than £1,000. Now with a simple cheek swab the procedure can be undertaken for under £100. Within 10 years we may all be walking around with our genetic sequence on a memory stick.

Why should genetics matter to HR?

Genetics aside, we all know people who just don’t have the characteristics that would be helpful in a leadership role, which means that any attempt to develop them as leaders would involve a lot of heartache. If we’re not all cut out to be leaders, a future that includes the genetic screening of applicants could provide just as much validity for HR as the psychometric tests commonly used today.

Such developments predict that we’re heading for a scary future when it comes to genetic science. And with more people putting their genetic data on file, combined with direct-to-consumer testing becoming a rapidly growing business, it’s conceivable that DNA-based personality testing – or even leadership prediction – could soon emerge in the market.

This raises colossal ethical issues. Yet genetic data in organisations is not in itself a bad thing. It is how that data is utilised and how it informs policy decisions that is potentially damaging. Knowing who has a genetic propensity for leadership is no different in many ways to identifying a group of high potentials and choosing to either allocate more resource to their development, or develop the talent of all employees in different ways. What the data will do is make such policy decisions more important and necessary.

With this changing landscape HR needs to take action if it's to stay at the heart of people issues in organisations. It needs to put the genetics of leadership on its agenda, before the market sets the agenda for it.

Jane Yarnall is the director of business development consultancy Skills Evolution, and an associate consultant at Roffey Park Institute