What makes a good leader great?


Whether we like it or not, we’re born into a world where climbing the ranks in business ultimately becomes our top priority—especially earlier on in our careers.

We compete to get into the best universities, and we clamor for open positions at the top firms. Once we get our leg in the door, we immediately try and learn what we need to do to get to the next level. It’s this constant drive toward the top that we either grow used to or learn to hate altogether.

And the way we work continues to change as the business world adapts to new technologies. Whether at a start-up or enterprise, traditional work environments are being transformed from the inside out, with intrapreneurs and self-declared leaders taking charge.

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For those of us looking to jumpstart career growth, there’s a lot of advice out there on who to talk to, what industries to join, and how to stand out, but a lot less information on what makes up a great leader, on a scientific level. Could leadership be a gene we’re born with or is it a character trait we learn on the job?

This article will look at the science behind risk taking, what work environments develop today’s greatest leaders, and how to develop stronger emotional intelligence in a leadership role.

The Leadership Gene

It’s seems odd that our genetic code could decide if we’re built to lead in the workplace or if we’re meant to follow. But a new study from Kansas State University has discovered that such a gene may exist, but it’s not the be-all to end-all of your career.

The study focused on the dopamine transporter gene DAT1, which according to new research, controls the reward and motivation systems in our brains. More, people who had a special variant of the gene were more likely to engage in mild rule-breaking behavior. Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences at Kansas State University says in the report:

“These kinds of behaviors can provide you with an advantage because they allow adolescents to explore boundaries and learn something new.”

In other words, this study suggests that those who dare to take risks—not because they’re bold by choice, but because they’re hardwired to think differently—are the people who are best equipped to lead.

brain dna

The study does come with one caveat—these same people who dare to take risks are also the worst at making positive change happen. Meaning, they’re not always as good at regulating behaviors such as being persistent. This finding could explain why many organizations are formed through partnerships, with one person acting as the creative mastermind and the other as the operational arm.

The Challenger Effect

Work environment often sets young professionals up for success, even if they’re born with the golden gene variant or not. Studies show that professionals who experience a high-level of mentally demanding work tasks end up stimulating their verbal intelligence and significantly increasing their cognitive function overall.

What does this mean, exactly? Our brains rewire when we work in demanding environments, retaining information at a higher rate and functioning more efficiently long term. Therefore, the more people challenge themselves at work, the smarter they get.


Just like in the above study where risk-taking has been found to be a genetic leadership trait, being a challenger also leads to career success. However, learning to take risks and challenge the status quo aren’t enough to make a good leader great. You need to understand how to develop an emotional intelligence that makes you an empathetic and inspiring leader.

Eat Your Emotions

Being an emotionally intelligent leader means that you’re able to manage your moods and think rationally in the face of adversity. We’ve all been in situations where our temper and anxiety get the best us, leading us to make poor managerial decisions and mishandling high priority projects.

While we can take time management and leadership courses through work and at school, there’s a lot our body needs to function properly, that we can’t learn from a book or in a classroom.

A new study from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences recently tied diet, exercise, and emotional intelligence together for the first time. According to the study, “emotional intelligence is about knowing one’s true self and using awareness to best respond and relate to others—vital for a trusted and effective leader.”

And the study goes on to say that eating healthy and exercising regularly are two proven methods for developing and flexing emotional intelligence muscles. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, how can you expect others to believe in your big ideas?

healthy lunch

Leadership, According to Science

Some of us are born leaders while others have to work hard to develop the skills necessary for success. These studies provide us with context as to what great leaders do differently, whether it’s an inherent trait or something they learn along the way. Either way, to become a great manager, you need to learn to take risks, challenge the status quo, and develop an emotional intelligence. And don’t take it from me—this is just science.

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