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Are Leaders Born or Made?

Paper boats

Do hormones and neurotransmitters shape our leadership perceptions & capabilities?

When observing leaders behaving in a really inspiring and/or motivating way, fundamental questions are raised: Is there any reason why leaders (well, at least some of them) behave in that extraordinary manner?

Do they have something driven inside, that forces them to demonstrate this inspiring behaviour? If yes, how it can be identified? And do our bodies really have any leadership ‘genes’?

For many decades, scientists have been trying to find an answer to the question of whether leaders are born or made. For many years, a sociopsychological approach was more or less the dominant view, claiming that there are some genetic characteristics, but what is more important is the environment.

Nevertheless, without arguing against the importance of the social process of leadership development, we support the view that the latest boost in the field of neuroscience provides an excellent opportunity to explore the other side of the coin.

In other words, the answer to the aforementioned question of whether leaders are born or made is “yes” and “yes”.

But although we have found a lot out about the latter “Yes” (made), now we have a good chance to explore further the former “Yes” (born). But first things first…

What makes a leader?

It is absolutely clear that leaders are not like other people. They do not always have to be geniuses to become successful, but they need to possess the “right stuff” that is not equally given to all people.

Leadership is too demanding a behaviour for people who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Although time and space (context) in the leadership process surely matter, leaders need something else to overcome the challenges they face.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes a study by a Stanford University psychology professor Lewis Terman, who examined the lives and success lifespans of 1,470 of the most talented students across the US.

The surprising results published in Genetics Studies of Genius revealed that most of them ended up with ordinary careers. None of those exceptionally intelligent people became a successful entrepreneur or a famous public figure.

So, if not intelligence, then what is it that makes some people incredible at what they do? What makes people behave like real leaders? 

“It’s because they possessed the kind of savvy that allowed them to get what they wanted from the world”, Gladwell says when describing the success story of a person not considered a 'genius'. 

We need practical capabilities to deal with challenges. What psychologist Robert Stenberg calls “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect”.

Practical capability is not measured by IQ, it is a skill that helps leaders to read situations correctly and get what they want. It is a dynamic process to find a way to deal with challenges in an adaptive, persistent and collaborative manner.

We suggest that practical capability is the answer to why intelligent people do not always succeed.

The next question is whether there are any biological aspects linked to this capability.

There are some studies that suggest a series of features rooted in biology that seem to influence the practical capability of leaders. Sorcher and Brant argue that much of leadership talent is hardwired in personalities “before they [individuals] reach their early or mid-twenties”. Genetic endowments help people to seek and create opportunities, and individuals that are genetically predisposed to become leaders seek more challenges and more difficult tasks while others are avoiding such circumstances.

There are studies that show a positive correlation between certain physical factors and leadership behaviour including health, height, weight, energy level, etc. Bass in his research showed a significant correlation between height and leadership.

Judge and Cable proved a positive correlation between weight and income for men and a negative correlation for women.

Bass and Bass discovered that leaders are generally healthier than non-leaders, as they have higher levels of energy to deal with complex tasks.

Moreover, Langlois argued that physical attractiveness is not only an advantage for romantic relations but also social status. Several studies of Bass and Bass proved leaders to be better looking in general.

Is leadership in the genes?

Considering the abovementioned research, we can attempt to determine how much of biology lies behind leadership. What if there are leadership genes?

The new discipline of brain science provides us with insights that help us open the door of the leader’s brain and better understand their behaviours and motives.

A prime example is temperament and how it relates to leadership behaviour. The endocrine system closely interacts with the nervous system of all humans. Hormones and neurotransmitters, the chemical mediators, regulate many functions in our bodies and neuroendocrinology studies how these interactions happen. Several of those chemical mediators are believed to play a role in forming temperament.

Examinations of neurological correlations that relate to human temperament show that personality is not random. Temperament and individual traits, which deeply depend on genetics, dictate leadership behaviour and styles.

Based on a number of brain scan studies, four broad brain systems that influence leadership behaviour were identified: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen/oxytocin. This research shows that people are not born inherently the same - blank slates, to use old terminology - and not everything can be achieved by everybody having only the right social, economic and educational environment.

Our research* conducted among 195 top managers from 20 different countries aimed to find a correlation between temperament types and several dimensions like leadership styles, self-esteem and leadership perception.

The results showed that estrogen-driven people perceive themselves as less domineering, less clever and less knowledgeable. Serotonin-driven people believe they are less strong, while testosterone-driven people think they are less sincere. Dopamine-driven people consider themselves more energetic than all other temperaments.

In regard to leadership perception, estrogen-driven people have bad feelings about themselves, perceive themselves incapable of achieving anything worthwhile, seem less confident and contented, feel less emotionally mature and in control of their lives, as well as feel that they would like to change themselves.

Testosterone-driven people are less satisfied with who they are, they think of their personality as being less pleasant than that of others and they attribute their success to good luck less often than others do.

Serotonin-driven people consider themselves unlucky and are embarrassed to reveal their opinions, as well as reporting a feeling that they are failures.

Dopamine-driven people have the most positive attitude towards themselves.

Humans can behave “out of temperament”, but it is tiring for them. Dopamine-driven people that like novelty will struggle to stand boring jobs or strict schedules. Those who are serotonin-driven will struggle to lead “a life on the edge” for a long time. Testosterone-driven people will become exhausted by waiting for others and those who are estrogen-driven do not enjoy making ruthless decisions.

Leadership biology

The evidence above can be considered a starting point for developing an integrated theory of leadership biology. We argue that specific leadership chemical mediators may (partially at least) explain why having biological and psychological characteristics of genetic predispositions for leadership behaviour drives some individuals to gain distinctive leadership capabilities.

“Somewhere between age 21 and age 30 personality appears to take its final, fully developed form. In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster.” Costa & McCrae suggested in 1994.

By living lives, people get to know themselves better and behave mostly according to their inner forces. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “I think somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision”.

People do not only live with that decision, but they also like it. 


*Gruda, D, Psychogios, A. & Melnyk, Y. (2019), The Power of Temperament: Exploring the Biological Foundations of Leadership Perceptions, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Leadership Symposium, Theme: Power & Leadership, May 2019, Corfu, Greece

Prof. Alexandros Psychogios
Interdisciplinary Centre of Applied Brain Science for Business & Society
Birmingham City University

Mrs. Yuliya Melnyk
Deputy Director for Corporate Development, European Business Association (Ukraine)
Co-Founder, Mind It

Dr. Jon Gruda
National University of Ireland Maynooth