Sunday, September 13, 2015

People are born with set predispositions and biogenetic destiny

We may wish human beings were more rational but our brains, created for a different time and place, get in the way... You can take the person out of the Stone Age, ... but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person.

Leadership. As noted at the outset of this article, evolutionary psychology does not dispute individual differences. Indeed, an increasingly robust body of studies on twins conducted by behavioral geneticists indicates that people are born with set predispositions that harden as they age into adulthood. Genes for detachment and novelty avoidance have been found, for instance, which together appear to amount to shyness. It used to be assumed that shyness was induced entirely by environment—if a shy person just tried hard enough, he or she could become the life of the party. The same was said for people who were highly emotional—they could be coaxed out of such feelings. But again, research is suggesting that character traits such as shyness and emotional sensitivity are inborn.

That personality is inborn is not news to any parent with more than one child. You provide a stable home environment for your brood—the same food, the same schools, the same basic experiences on a day-to-day basis. And yet the first child is introverted and grows up to be an R&D scientist. The second, who never stopped chattering as a child, grows up to become a flamboyant sales executive. And still a third child is as even-keeled as can be and pursues a career as a schoolteacher. Evolutionary psychology would tell us that each one of these individuals was living out his biogenetic destiny.

All three of these children are hardwired for certain dispositions. For instance, each falls somewhere along the continuum of risk aversion described earlier. But each one’s level of aversion to risk differs. The point is, along with each person’s fundamental brain circuitry, people also come with inborn personalities. Some people are more dominant than others. Some are more optimistic. Some like math better than poetry. People can compensate for these underlying dispositions with training and other forms of education, but there is little point in trying to change deep-rooted inclinations.

The implications for leadership are significant. First, the most important attribute for leadership is the desire to lead. Managerial skills and competencies can be trained into a person, but the passion to run an organization cannot. This feeds into the rather unpopular notion that leaders are born, not made. Evolutionary psychologists would agree and, in fact, posit that some are born not to lead.

Second, the theory of inborn personality does not mean that all people with genes for dominance make good leaders. A propensity for authoritative behavior might help, but some organizational situations call more urgently for other traits—such as empathy or an ability to negotiate. There are as many types of leaders as there are leadership situations. The important thing is to have the personality profile that meets the demands of the situation.

Third and finally, if you are born with personality traits that don’t immediately lend themselves to leadership—shyness is a good example, as is high sensitivity to stress—that doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader. Rather, it means that you must protect yourself in certain ways. If you have a low threshold for stress, for instance, you would do well not to lead from the front lines. You could put your trusted senior managers there and position yourself in the corporate office to focus on strategy.

The worst problem an organization can get itself into, this line of thinking suggests, is to have a leader who does not want to lead. Reluctant leaders can survive as symbolic figureheads but will perform poorly if asked to manage other people. The motivation to lead is the baseline requirement for competent leadership. After that, other personality traits and managerial skills matter. They must match the demands of the situation. But if the person in charge is not born wanting to lead, he or she should do everyone a favor and follow or ally themselves with partners who do. 

A version of this article appeared in the July–August 1998 issue of Harvard Business Review. Nigel Nicholson is a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.
Nigel Nicholson, Ph.D., has been a professor at London Business School since 1990. Before becoming a business psychologist, his first profession was journalism and he is a frequent commentator in the media on current business issues. He is widely known for pioneering the introduction of the new science of evolutionary psychology to business through a stream of writings, including an article in Harvard Business Review (July/August 1998), and his book: Managing the Human Animal (Thomson Learning, 2000). His current major research interests include the psychology of family business, personality and leadership, and people skills in management. In these fields, as well as others such as innovation, organisational change, and executive career development, he has published over 20 books and 200 articles. He led a major research project on risk and decision-making among finance professionals, culminating in the book, Traders: Risks, Decisions and Management in Financial Markets (Oxford University Press, 2005). His book on family firms, Family Wars, was published in 2008 (Kogan Page). His new book, taking a fresh look at leadership through the lens of biography and the self, is The “I” of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing (Jossey-Bass, 2013), is the culmination of decades of executive development teaching and practice. 

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