If you skipped class in high school, you may be destined for the corner office

James dean
A rebel with a cause. (It’s his DNA.) ‘Rebel Without a Cause’/Warner Bros.

To get ahead, you want to play by the rules — to an extent.

But new research suggests that people who were moderate rule-breakers as teenagers — we’re talking about skipping class or breaking curfew, not engaging in serious crime — seem to have certain traits that may make them more likely to go onto leadership positions.
And, moreover, those traits may be written in your genes. Specifically, in DAT1, a dopamine transporter that’s been shown to correlate with certain leadership characteristics.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. As it always does, the pendulum swings both ways: in this case, the same rule-breaking inclinations that can make someone a good leader can also get in their way.
“It’s a mixed blessing,” Wen-Dong Li, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University, tells Business Insider.

Here’s what we know: based on Li’s study, people who have a specific version of the DAT1 gene — the 10-repeat allele — were more likely to have been adolescent rule-breakers, and having pushed the boundaries as a teen positively correlates with assuming leadership positions as an adult.

Your teen rebellion may have annoyed your parents, but it was setting you up for success. Except, the Li explains, there’s a wrinkle.

While the 10-repeat allele positively correlates with teen rebellion, which in turn positively correlates with certain types of adult success, it negatively correlates with what scientists call a “proactive personality.” And having a “proactive personality” — that is, being deliberate, good at planning, and considerate of risk — is also good for leadership.

In other words, the 10-repeat allele is a double-edged sword: like so many other traits, it’s a boon, unless it’s a liability.

DNA affects personality — but how is complicated. Flickr/dullhunk

The study is important because it suggests a possible relationship between genes and leadership. But, Li cautions, the mechanisms of that relationship “may be more complicated than people expect.”

Rather than there being specific and definitive “leadership genes,” he explains, it could be that environmental factors are what determines “the overall influence of specific genes on leadership.” There are thousands of factors at play: individual genes and gene-environment interactions, but also interactions between genes.

But while we’re a long, long way from unpacking what Li calls the “black box of genetic disposition for leadership,” the findings do suggest practical implications.

Individual differences are real, Li says, and organisations would do well to take them more seriously, adjusting their practices to “allow employees to fully realise their human potential” — potential that’s likely related to their genetic makeup.

Similarly, if people knew their genetic information and understood how to interpret it, they might be able to “seek out jobs and organisations that provide them with most suitable environments to optimise their development and potential.”

For now, though, the main takeaway isn’t that people with certain genetic codes should do certain jobs — and Li told the Washington Post he doesn’t foresee employers ever using DNA testing to pick leaders, even if we understood genetics a whole lot better than we do right now.

Instead, Li’s research is an argument for taking differences seriously — and making the most of them.

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