Sorry everyone - there isn't really a CEO gene

There's a story circulating that researchers at Kansas State University have found a 'CEO Gene'. Here's why they haven't.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2016

The idea that there is a 'CEO Gene' is beguiling but wrong - and it’s not even what the researchers are saying anyway. There’s an intriguing genetics story doing the rounds today based on a piece of research by one Dr Wendong Li of the psychological sciences department at Kansas State University.

The way it’s been spun by most of the media suggests that Dr Li and his colleagues are claiming to have found a ‘CEO Gene’. If you’ve got this gene - the 10 repeat allele in the dopamine transporter gene DAT 1 to be precise - then the key to the executive washroom and/or corporate jet are already as good as yours. If you haven’t then tough luck, you are feted never to rise above the common herd no matter how hard you try.

The gene is involved in the brain’s dopamine reward response chemistry and is, says Dr Li’s team, important for motivation. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter, one the brain’s feelgood chemicals. When that lab rat running round the maze turns a corner and receives a piece of cheese rather than an electric shock, it’s the dopamine hit that makes it want more. Our brains are surprisingly similar to rats, in this respect, and others.

Those who have it are apparently more likely to indulge in ‘mild rule breaking behaviour’ as adolescents says Dr Li, something which the study found to be predictive of leadership potential in later life. Perhaps due to a higher propensity to take calculated risks, try new things and gain experience of when to ignore conventional wisdom.

So far so good. But that’s quite a long way short of being a ‘CEO gene’ as the researchers acknowledge. Environmental factors such as education and parenting are likely to play at least as large a part, and even the specific DAT 1 gene itself can be a two edged sword. It may encourage rule breaking but it can also result in people who are less inclined to change their behaviours to improve their performance. Not quite such a good thing when it comes to CEO potential.

What’s more, the idea that single genes - which can determine simple physical characteristics like eye colour - have any impact on the much more nuanced business of human behaviour, isn’t really true. It’s all a lot more complicated than that, involving the mind-boggling complexities of multiple gene influence and variable gene expression that scientists - despite the billions of dollars spent on genetic research over the past 25 years - are only just beginning to guess at.

Dr Li and his team clearly know this, even if many of those reporting on it don’t, or choose to ignore it. 'It's like a mixed blessing - this gene can have both positive and negative effects on leadership,' Li said. 'An implication is that it really depends on environmental factors to determine if overall it is a positive or negative.'

So, no need for aspiring CEOs out there to get there DAT 1 genes tested. The truth is that leadership can be learned, and that becoming a CEO is about talent and hard work more than a biochemical lottery.

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