MAY 20, 2015 1:26 PM PDT

Are You a Leader? Check for Dopamine Transporter Gene DAT1

WRITTEN BY: Will Hector
What really makes a good leader? There are probably as many lists of the traits that make up good leaders as there are leadership styles. Is it honesty and transparency? Charisma, good looks, or a firm handshake? Decisiveness and an unwillingness to stray from a goal?

Researchers at Kansas State University surveyed two data sets comprising more than 13,000 individuals and found that people who had the dopamine active transporter, or DAT, were more likely to report in adolescence they behaved in the type of mild rule-bending manor that's associated positively with leadership.

A quick survey of academic literature and CEO biographies will confirm the leadership benefits of mild rule-breaking.

The KSU researcher team also found that subjects with the dopamine transporter possessed fewer proactive personality traits. In other words, according to study co-author Wendong Li, they were less likely to regulate their own behaviors to make positive change.

"It can be very difficult to make a positive change because it involves mobilizing resources to overcome difficulties and obstacles so that the change can happen. These people were not good at regulating behaviors such as being persistent," Li said. "It's like a mixed blessing -- this gene can have both positive and negative effects on leadership."

This might explain why so many leaders we consider great are notoriously hard to work with. The DAT gene produces individuals who are both rule benders and stubborn.

The DAT gene, especially the DAT 10/10 genotype, has been associated with occurrence of ADHD, and has been implicated in increased risk of acquiring HIV based on-depending on other social factors-a leaning toward risk-taking behavior.

Li said the behavioral genetics discovery has impacts in terms of organizational psychology and structure: "In the long run, we are advocating more individualized and customized management practices, which allow people to choose the type of work environment that fits their individual characteristics. Customizing workplace practices is good for employee learning, development and leadership potential. Ultimately, it is good for employee performance and well-being, which in turn may enhance organizational effectiveness."

From a parent or teacher's perspective, a child who both breaks rules and refuses to change sounds like a challenge that would require extra attention. It's speculative, but perhaps increased attention from parents or teachers at an early age helps these individuals become more comfortable with authority-and thus, leadership-than their peers.

One final thought: Since one can't lead in a vacuum, a good leader requires good followers. And what makes people want to follow? It surely depends on many factors, though trustworthiness ought to be high on the list.

Follow Will Hector on Twitter: @WriterWithHeart

(Sources: ScienceDaily; Leadership Quarterly; National Institutes of Health)
About the Author
  • Will Hector practices psychotherapy at Heart in Balance Counseling Center in Oakland, California. He has substantial training in Attachment Theory, Hakomi Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Psycho-Physical Therapy, and Formative Psychology. To learn more about his practice, click here:
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