The jury is still out on whether there is a leadership gene, as much as
today’s leaders would like to believe in their superior Genomic makeup.
However, science has a role to play in helping us understand how we tick at
You may never have considered yourself a leader but you could be just the
person your organisation needs. This book contains questionnaires, tests,
important exercises… to find out if you have the leadership gene.
So begins the online blurb for a book called The Leadership Gene: The
Genetic Code for a Lifelong Leadership Career by one Cyril Levicki, the cloth
edition of which can be yours for the local currency equivalent of $52.50.
If you buy the book and discover that, hurrah, you do have the
"leadership gene" you might be best advised to run headlong into the
arms of one of the major drugs companies because you will be, to use the
redundant vocabulary of a bad press release, "very unique". Unique
because there is as much proof that the leadership gene exists as there is
compelling documentary evidence to support belief in the unicorn.
At this point you’re probably thinking, hang on, we’ve all read research
that suggests that leaders are born not made, surely there’s a scientific
consensus on that. Well, the sad news is that while scientists do agree on some
things (the fact, for instance, that we have half of our genes in common with
the humble banana), they disagree on many others.
And what often happens, says Robert Matthews, a fellow at Aston University
(whose seminal research includes a study of how many extra toilets restaurants
would have to install to keep the queue for the ladies the same length as the
one for the gents) is that most people outside the scientific community believe
the research which supports their prejudices.
All of which means that when exploring the scientific dimension of HR, what
science doesn’t tell us can be as important as what it does. Medical science
continues, for example, to produce a stream of useful research of interest to
the HR professional. There are studies which suggest that male staff who don’t
take their holidays are more susceptible to heart disease. In a similar vein,
there are studies which indicate that after a long working day (17 hours or
over) people’s responses are 50 per cent slower than they are after drinking a
moderate amount of alcohol.
There is also a wonderfully entitled piece of research which claims
"moderately aggressive men have better immune systems" but leaves the
reader wondering how they define "moderately aggressive".
Of particular interest to HR managers are two recent studies from US
academia. Researchers at Brown University in West Virginia studying panic
disorders found that people may adjust better if told a stressful event is
about to occur rather than having it sprung on them. This was especially true
of women who, the study also found, were more likely than men to actively seek
out unpleasant news.
And research published in the April edition of the Journal of Occupational
Health Psychology indicates fear of redundancies can lead employees to be less
strict about safety standards and cause more injuries in the workplace.
A lot of this sounds like common sense, although it’s good to have the
research to back it up, but what about issues like the leadership gene? What
does science have to say about that or indeed about the school of business
thought known as evolutionary psychology, whose advocates are always keen to
stress their scientific credentials?
Matthews isn’t convinced by either notion. "The idea that science shows
that leaders are born not made just won’t go away but that doesn’t necessarily
mean it’s true. In the 1960s, there was a lot of talk about something called
the XYY Man. The idea was that men with an extra Y chromosome may be more
likely to indulge in criminal or violent behaviour."
In the decades since, in our urge to explain the mysteries of human
behaviour, we have stopped citing chromosomes and started blaming genes. We
have also come up with pseudo-scientific constructs like the ever-popular
"Type-A personality". Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author
of The Selfish Gene, has said, "You have to realise that hardly any of the
research on alpha males is relevant to humans." So the bad news for all
your colleagues who see themselves as thrusting and dynamic Type-A executives
is that their personality type may not exist.
If you believe everything you read in the papers, you will now be convinced
that we have identified the genetic roots for alcoholism, happiness,
homosexuality, violence and, of course, leadership. There was even a claim that
a "novelty seeking" gene had been identified. But as Yale professor
Dr Joel Gelernter says, "It’s hard to come up with many findings linking
specific genes to complex human behaviour that have been replicated. All were
announced with great fanfare; all were greeted without scepticism in the
popular press; all are now in disrepute."
Part of the problem is that, even though we have now mapped the so-called
code of life (a process which led scientists to drastically reduce their
estimate of the number of genes in our bodies – the best guesstimate today is
130,000) we don’t understand how genes interact.
Matthews says, "A lot of the major drug companies may get egg on their
faces when they announce they can treat the genes that cause cancer and heart
disease. We may be able to do that with something very simple like cystic
fibrosis but diseases as complex as cancer are completely different."
That said, scientists can sometimes be their own worst enemies, exuding a
confidence which the evidence does not always support. While Matthews focuses
on how little we still know about genes and behaviour, it’s easy to find souls
like Craig Venter, the president of Celera Genomics, who talks of a world where
"each week you’d log on to the Celera website to see the latest research
for codes that have an indication for some disease or a certain trait".
Cynics would say that Venter is, to use a term from the software business,
"People tend to believe the research they want to believe in,"
says Matthews. "That was why XYY man and Type-A personalities were so
popular, they just confirmed what certain people wanted to believe." The
idea that leaders are born not made is seductive, especially for those who
decide that they are the ones preselected to lead, but scientists like Dawkins
caution against such simplifications. Talking to Harvard Business Review he
said, "We mustn’t pick up evolutionary ideas in a simple way. For example,
if our thesis about leadership was that hormones were all-important in deciding
whether women could or could not lead, to test it we would strictly have to do
a Nazi-type experiment and inject females with testosterone to see if that made
them good leaders. Of course, that’s not an experiment anyone would wish to
Besides, as Matthews says, "It’s not just that we don’t understand
exactly how genes work, it’s that ‘leadership’ is not a scientific term.
"How do you find something as woolly as ‘leadership’ and attach it to a
gene?" But saying that there is no leadership gene is not the same as
saying that leadership is not genetically influenced. He cites a study done in
1999 that found that half of the leadership differences in 250 pairs of twins
were genetically influenced.
So where does this leave the evolutionary psychologists who, drawing on the
work of people like Dawkins, insist that much of modern business management
thinking misses the point because, basically, we are hardwired in the same way
as Stone Age man? The theory rests on the easily understood premise that the
200,000 years or so since our ancestors first emerged onto the plains of Africa
is insufficient time for us to have significantly evolved as a species.
Most of us have, in the course of our working lives, suspected that our
immediate superior was a caveman, here is the "scientific" proof,
right? Well, not quite. Evolutionary psychology is on its strongest ground when
it cautions us against some of the shibboleths of modern management thinking.
Breaking down hierarchies is not always easy – or even productive. There is a
limit to how much we can train our employees. And it’s not hard to see the
parallels between the chest thumping with which Stone Age man would impress his
mate and corporate chest-thumping stunts like the Salesman Of The Month award.
But Matthews says that the scientific basis for a simplified reductive
evolutionary biology is not great. "It’s too simplistic," he says.
"There are cases of accelerated evolution, al-though these have often been
challenged and discredited, but we have a vastly greater cranial capacity than,
say, the Neanderthals. And as Dawkins himself says in his book The Selfish
Gene, one of the things which makes us different as a species is that we can
alter our own behaviour, so we can break free of what you might describe as the
Darwinian laws of evolution. For evidence of that, you only have to look at
average IQ levels which have been rising rapidly over the last 50-60
Both the Genes’R’Us and evolutionary psychology explanations for human
behaviour take too little account of our own ability to change."
As Francis Collins, head of the US Human Genome Project, says, "We will
not understand the importance of things like love by knowing our DNA sequence.
If humanity begins to view itself as a machine, programmed by our DNA sequence,
we will have lost something really important."
So are leaders born not made? Science’s best answer to that is, as
contestants used to say on Mastermind, "Pass". And are you best
treating your employees as if they were Stone Age relics? The verdict on that
has to be, "Not proven".
That doesn’t mean you should ignore what science might have to say about the
behaviour and drives of your colleagues and employees. But when you read the next
story saying scientists have discovered a gene which makes people serial
killers, basketball players or accountants, treat it with a bucketful of salt.
And remember that scientific consensus is rarer than the media would have you
As Matthews says "We agree on E=MC2 but one of the revelations of the
last 20 years is what little else scientists agree on."
Science and HR in the workplace
Bear in mind that like all scientific "discoveries" these findings
may well be challenged by other scientists. But this is a sample of recent
research which has some bearing on human resources in its widest sense.
Women would make better security guards and customs officers than men.
Josef Bigun of the Halmstad University in Sweden found this to be true in
one crucial respect. In e-mail tests of 10,000 people he found that women are
much better at recognising human faces than men who get distracted by such
frippery as hairstyles and expressions. The difference between the sexes’
ability to spot faces is, he says, quite marked and he suspects it may partly
have to do with the fact that women, who are often the primary carer in a
family, have lengthier eye contact with children.
Women may present themselves better in face-to-face interviews than men.
This, at least, was the conclusion Dr Jo Silvester of City University,
London, came to after studying interviews for a UK graduate training programme.
Silvester found interviewers asked men more open ended questions than women
but, despite being given this opportunity to impress, men were less adept at
presenting themselves as people who were in control of their lives. Oddly,
Silvester found that men did better in phone interviews.
Even low levels of noise in open plan offices can add to employees’
That’s according to Cornell University’s Gary Evans, who assigned 40 female
clerical workers (all of whom were 37 years old) to either a quiet office or
one with low intensity noise for three hours. Researchers found that workers in
the noisy office suffered higher levels of the so-called stress hormone,
epinephrine, in their urine, made 40 per cent fewer attempts to solve an
impossible puzzle and made only half as many attempts to adjust their
workstations as those in the quiet office.
Women have to be 2.5 times as productive as men to get the same ratings
for their work from their peers as their male counterparts.
This is the claim of scientists at Gothenburg University. Susan Greenfield,
director of the Royal Institution, says, "It’s the sort of thing one
suspects but to have it there in bold made me angry." She says that
funding agencies elsewhere in the world should submit data on their evaluations
through the same kind of scrutiny.
If you really want a healthy, happy workforce, move your company to
Okinawa in Japan.
According to a 25-year study by three academics (two US and one Japanese),
inhabitants of the island have a life expectancy of 85 years for women and 77
years for men (six and three years longer than the same figures in the UK
respectively). Heart disease is rare as is breast cancer and the island’s men
have not even heard of prostate cancer, according to one of the academics.
Intriguingly, the Okinawa effect wears off when the islanders go abroad to
work, as soon as they do that their life expectancy plummets.
Next time you have a brainstorming session bring along some absinthe.
Banned in many countries because the French liqueur can cause permanent
neurological damage, it was the drink of choice of the likes of Van Gogh,
Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Toulouse-Lautrec. Scientists have found that a
component of the drink, alpha-thujone, blocks the brain’s own blocking
mechanism which stops brain cells firing at will, making the user feel
incredibly mentally alive. Of course, use it too often and too copiously and
you could go mad and die. It’s your call.