Leaders, Are They Born or Made?
Have you ever considered your own leadership qualities?
Popular opinion would probably lean towards what Warren Bennis stated, “..the most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born - that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not.”
Genetics does have something to say about leadership styles. There is evidence that a gene can predispose us to be either a “Warrior” or a “Worrier”. There is no doubt the image of the corporate warrior abounds in the popular psyche and at first blush it would appear that being predisposed to be a warrior may be a genetic advantage.
The particular gene of interest codes for the production of COMT (Catechol-O-Methyl Transferase). COMT is an enzyme that breaks down dopamine, a key brain neurotransmitter. Dopamine is very important for the functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the area just behind your forehead and it is the brain’s executive control center. The prefrontal cortex is essential for many of the skills that lead to success in a complex world- cognitive flexibility, reasoning, organisation, problem solving, planning, fear modulation, insight, empathy and intuition. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for our ability to inhibit inappropriate impulses. However, ordinary everyday acute stresses are capable of overwhelming and shutting down the functions of the prefrontal cortex, allowing emotionality and impulsivity to take over.
The COMT gene comes in two varieties. One breaks down dopamine quickly while the other removes it slowly. So how does this affect our day to day performance? When on calm seas and with minimal stress the slow variety of COMT keeps dopamine levels up and as a group the slow turnover group tend to function better than the fast turnover variety. However, under stress, the brain is flooded with dopamine (and other neurotransmitters), the fast variety (warriors) can remove the excess dopamine quickly and their performance is enhanced while the slow variety (worriers) tend to become overwhelmed by the flood of dopamine, leading to a shut down of the executive control centre in the prefrontal cortex.
Freezing under stress, is a common experience for all of us at some point in our life, and has its roots in a loss of control over these “executive functions” that allow us to control our emotions. The prefrontal cortical areas, which serve as the brain’s executive command centre’s, normally hold our emotions in check by sending signals to tone down activity in primitive brain systems. Under even everyday stresses, the prefrontal cortex can shut down, inducing mental paralysis, panic and an inability to “think” or act.
Due to the quirks of genetics you may have two copies of the fast variety (warriors), two copies of the slow variety (worriers), or one of each (neither warrior or worrier but some blend of the two depending on circumstances). So the prefrontal cortex works best with a particular level of dopamine. Too little dopamine and all of the essential problems solving skills can’t function well, too much, as in times of stress and the prefrontal cortex goes into meltdown.
This suggests that mild stress may favour “worriers” as the slight or steady anxiety induced by stress may motivate completion of tasks and achievement of goals while not detracting from their high cognitive abilities. Warriors may be naturally primed for external threats and do better during times of moderate to severe stress.
Fortunately, biology is not destiny. So what can “worriers” do to combat the effects of stress?
Preliminary research into post-traumatic stress disorders among military veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts has turned up some interesting findings. Navy SEAL pilots (a highly stressful vocation) have higher than expected numbers of worrier gene individuals. Even higher than would be expected in the general population (almost one third compared to the expected one quarter). What accounts for these so-called “Worrier-gene Warriors”? Recall that those pure worriers (two copies of the “worrier” gene) can’t clear stress-related dopamine rapidly and are more prone to the debilitating effects of stress. The explanation; “those with Worrier-genes can still handle incredible stress — as long as they are well trained." Also note that recruitment for elite military units tend to select “the best and brightest”, thus biasing towards the better problem solving skills of the “worriers”. With extensive training “worriers” actually outperform “warriors” by harnessing their problem solving skills.
So the good news is that even people with 100% “worrier” genes can use positive strategies and training in a stressful context to overcome their anxiety. “Worriers” should think of their stress as a motivator.
Via training, stressful activities (which are unique to each individual), can be used to associate a feeling of nervousness or anxiety with having fun with competition and accomplishing a goal. Regardless of genetics, seeing stress as a positive force can help anyone handle pressure better.
A consequence of our growing understanding of stress is to devise strategies to keep our neural-control centre intact. The aim is to stop the brain from switching from a “reflective” to a “reflexive” state in stressful circumstances. Some of these insights confirm what we already know. Training for emergency services personnel or for military service is all about teaching the basal ganglia (an area below the cortex) and other subcortical brain structures to learn the automatic reactions needed to survive. Developing a sense of psychological control via practise, rehearsal and exposure to stressful situations can be the deciding factor in whether we fall apart during stress. Public speaking exhilarates those who feel confident before an audience. For others, it induces nothing but terror, and their minds “go blank.”
Routine exposure to mild stress (stress inoculation training) i.e., embracing stress rather than avoiding it, leads to a greater capability of handling stress in the future. Similarly, research on resilience indicates that success in managing challenging situations can build personal resilience.
Many behavioral strategies such as relaxation, controlled deep breathing, meditation, and mindful awareness practices can all reduce the stress response.
Therefore on the basis of stress research it appears that an optimal level of stress is good for both Warriors and Worriers. Warriors thrive on the rush of competition in all of its forms, whereas Worriers need regular practice with increasing intensity of stress so that they can learn to adapt to it. Whether you are a Warrior, a Worrier, or a blend of the two, it’s all about how you train your mind to manage the inevitable stresses of life.
And what about that sense of control? Perhaps by learning about how the brain reacts to stress, you may come away with an enhanced sense of control. So maybe the next time you are being tested or speaking in public and your mind goes blank, you can say to yourself, “This is just my brain trying to save me from a tiger.” Maybe it will bring a comforting smile to your face even if it does not bring the correct answer or word to mind.
Another quotation about leadership could sum this up:
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” John F. Kennedy.
Footnote: The term Warrior gene can also refer to the effects of Monoamine Oxidase (MAO), an enzyme that has a more general action in breaking down the neurotransmitters - serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline. A particular allele (variant) of the gene that codes for MAO activity has been linked to increased risk taking and aggressive behaviour, and hence was also dubbed a “warrior” gene. (Gibbons A. American Association of Physical Anthropologists Meeting: Tracking the evolutionary history of a “warrior” gene. Science. 2004; 304:818–819.) This gene is NOT the Warrior gene of interest in relation to stress management.
Further reading about the COMT gene, and the effects of stress on your brain:
This Is Your Brain in Meltdown
Published on 8/13/2014