Dopamine, empathy and the neurobiology of leadership

Carl Senior, Nick Lee

Research output: Unpublished contribution to conferenceAbstract


Objectives: Organisational Psychologists have long sought after methods by which to train individuals to become more effective leaders. Indeed considerable sums of money are spent on the design of such training programs. Yet it is not clear whether or not leadership skills can be taught or whether they are innate. Social leadership is a varied construct consisting of many diverse aspects, yet the ability to empathise with subordinates is a core skill that underpins effective transformational leadership. This type of leadership consists of four characteristics which are labelled ‘idealized influence’, ‘inspirational motivation’, ‘intellectual stimulation’ and ‘individualized consideration’. This is distinct from the transactional style of leadership, which is based on offering contingent rewards for completion of specific tasks. By identifying a specific gene that mediates distinct leadership traits, more effective training regimes can be designed.
Design: There are two likely candidate genes that may mediate empathic leadership. The first is catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) which is involved with dopamine synthesis, and the second is the serotonin transporter promoter gene (5-HTTLPR). Both these genes mostly appear in the general population in their heterozygotic form. Thus by comparing phenotypes in leadership traits a measure of base line differences can be examined.
Methods: 115 volunteers completed the Multifactor Leadership questionnaire (MLQ), which is a standard 12-item leadership psychometric scale and also underwent buccal swab for subsequent genotyping.
Results: Of the 115 subjects 37 were heterozygotic for the COMT gene and 47 heterozygotic for 5-HTTLPR. Of the 12 MLQ subscales, the scores for two of the subscales only differed between the two participant groups. Individuals who were heterozygotic for the COMT gene scored higher on the ‘Inspirational motivation’ t(84)=1.99, p=0.05 and ‘Intellectual stimulation’ t(82)=1.94, p=0.05 scales compared to the carriers for the heterozygotic 5HTPP gene.
Conclusions: Given that the behaviours described by these two MLQ subscales require leaders to empathise with subordinates, the current results suggest that dopamine may play a role in this important social task. The fact that both heterozygotic carriers for COMT and 5HTPP were compared allows a comparison to be made between the genotypes most prevalent in the general population.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - Apr 2009
EventAnnual British Psychological Society Conference 2009 - Brighton, United Kingdom
Duration: 1 Apr 20093 Apr 2009


ConferenceAnnual British Psychological Society Conference 2009
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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