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A silhouette of a man speaking into a megaphone.

If you're genetically wired for leadership, you likely have a desire to influence others and to be the center of attention, says U professor Richard Arvey.

Born to lead?

From eNews, June 23, 2005

Identical twins Dan and Dean Oberpriller, 55-year-old Minneapolis-based entrepreneurs, have always held leadership positions and had strong leadership role models. They both graduated with majors in journalism at the University of Minnesota and spent several years in the upper ranks of Minnesota's premier advertising agencies before striking out on their own.

Were the Oberprillers born as potential leaders or did their environments shape their future roles as leaders? "The nature-versus-nurture question has been around for centuries," says Richard Arvey, a human resources and industrial relations professor in the Carlson School of Management. Arvey studied pairs of twins and the leadership roles they've held over the years to get the answer: 30 percent of leadership is based on genetics, while 70 percent is dependent on environmental factors.

What does this mean? "People are not as malleable as we think," says Arvey. "While environmental influences determine many of our leadership behaviors and the roles we obtain, our genes still exert a sizable influence over whether we will become leaders." Therefore, leadership is both inherited and acquired. "And although 30 percent may not seem like a high number, statistically it is strong," he adds. "Leaders aren't just made."

The availability of the Minnesota Twin Registry--a University of Minnesota research database that tracks the 10,000 surviving pairs of twins born in Minnesota between 1936 and 1981--enabled Arvey to examine the issue in a scientific way.

Arvey and his colleagues drew on the registry to survey 325 pairs of identical and fraternal male twins who were born between 1961 and 1964 and raised together. "Identical twins share 100 percent of their genes, and fraternal twins share about 50 percent. This allowed us to look at twins who were raised together and [to] tease apart the contributions of genetics versus environmental factors in leadership," explains Arvey. The researchers' findings will be published in the January 2006 issue of Leadership Quarterly. Coauthors are Maria Rotundo from the University of Toronto and University of Minnesota graduate students Wendy Johnson, Matt McGue, and Zhe Zhang.

"While environmental influences determine many of our leadership behaviors and the roles we obtain, our genes still exert a sizable influence over whether we will become leaders," says Arvey.

Research participants were asked a series of questions such as their desire to influence others, to be the center of attention, to persist when others give up, and to be with people. "If you answer these questions positively, you are probably genetically wired for leadership," says Arvey. Next, he took an inventory of the leadership roles they had held throughout their lives, which included titles such as supervisor, director, vice president, or president.

"A great deal of personality is genetic-based," he adds. "If your personality is such that you aspire to and have held these positions, then these roles also suggest a genetic link. This study does not identify a specific gene, but looks at whether an individual has gravitated to these positions in the past."

This was a first step in looking at genetics in the workplace, says Arvey, and there's still much to be done. If 70 percent of leadership is environmentally based, what are the various environmental influences that make a leader? How do genetics and the environment interact in creating a leader? What if gender is factored in? "These are all questions waiting to be answered," Arvey said. "It also doesn't mean that if you are a leader, you'll be a good one." The study looked at who became leaders and why, not at leadership effectiveness.

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