Early Life Experiences Produce Stronger Leaders

Studies exploring leadership and the factors influencing it have not quantified the degree of influence of experiences as children on leadership qualities as adults. This study pioneers in the field of exploring the effects of parenting and childhood experiences in breaking rules on leadership qualities acquired as adults. Results show that strict parenting led to less rule breaking that was either modest or serious during childhood but in the end led to leadership roles in adulthood. On the other hand, when rule breaking is not too severe, it could predict more leadership roles; while rule breaking when severe, led to fewer leadership roles assumed later in life.

Previous research into the mechanics of leadership has shown that approximately 30 percent of the variation in leadership style and emergence into leadership roles is accounted for by genetic factors, while the rest is attributed to environmental influences such as role models, etc. For this study, the researchers focused on parenting style and rule breaking behavior exhibited early in life and their relationship to how many leadership positions the person occupied into adulthood. The main reason for undertaking this study was: “Family experiences and more specifically parental practices have been shown to influence important individual outcomes including rule breaking behaviors. However, the rule breaking and parenting literatures have focused mainly on outcomes in childhood and adolescence, with limited research on outcomes in adulthood.”

•    The participants in this study were part of an ongoing study, the Minnesota Twin Family Study (MTFS) of twins and their parents, which began in 1989 and included a total of 109 pairs of identical twins and 87 pairs of fraternal twins. All participants were male.
•    Participants were asked questions about ability, personality, interests, family/social relationships, physical health or psychological traits. Periodically they were also asked to visit the university to complete a series of assessments, as well as contacted by telephone to participate in a telephone interview, or by mail to complete a questionnaire.
•    Rule breaking behavior was assessed in 1995 using a 45-item self-reported questionnaire. The five forms of rule breaking are family and school offenses, being picked up by police, serious crimes and drug use. Parenting practices were assessed by a 54 item self-reported questionnaire.
•    Approximately five years later, participants responded to questionnaire items that asked them about formal and informal leadership roles that they occupied in work settings and in the community.

•    Authoritative parenting could positively influence how many management/leadership roles an individual took up in adulthood.
•    Authoritative parenting could negatively influence severe rule breaking.
•    Mild rule breaking positively influenced how many management/leadership roles an individual took up later in life in adulthood.
•    Severe rule breaking could negatively influence the frequency of management/leadership roles that an individual played in adults.

Shortcomings/Next steps
Researchers speculate that if youth are stimulated early in life with challenges and changes in the status quo of life, such as situations where they may be forced to break rules modestly, the effects of the same on later leadership capabilities could be established. The authors plan to explore this aspect further in later studies. They believe that the study may fall short in assessing leadership in the participants adequately. A major shortcoming was that the study was conducted on an all-male population. Whether females show similar trends remains to be seen in future studies.

This study reinforces the fact that a challenging behavior may not be all bad for children. Indeed, encouraging challenging behavior, coupled with supportive parenting, may help accelerate the emergence and development of leadership potential. This means parents have a responsibility to not always make things clear and easy for children by setting rigid rules but to let them explore the boundaries of what they must consider right versus wrong to prepare them for more difficult dilemmas to be faced later in life.  As the authors have said, the study has brought them “closer to understanding the antecedents of this important construct we call leadership.”

For More Information:
Early Life Experiences as Determinants of Leadership Role Occupancy: The Importance of Parental Influence and Rule Breaking Behavior
Publication Journal: The Leadership Quarterly, June 2009
By Bruce J. Avolio; Maria Rotundo; Michael G. Foster School of Business, Seattle, Washington and the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
Tags from the story
, ,