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Understanding the Child’s Hopscotch to Leadership


Parents’ socioeconomic status plays an outsized, yet indirect, role in whether kids emerge as leaders in adulthood

A kid following the steps of her mother

There is a section in the management literature reserved for what could be described as the hero’s journey to leadership. You’re familiar with the storyline: a captain of industry — say, Howard Schultz of Starbucks or Ursula Burns of Xerox — overcomes childhood poverty to rise to the top. 

These are stirring and inspiring stories. They offer hope for others raised under challenging circumstances — yes, your past does not have to define your future. But they are just that: personal stories. The aggregate view offers a less uplifting perspective. The reality is that, when it comes to the pathway to leadership, your past has a lot to say about your future. 

For at least 50 years, researchers have been probing to understand why one person emerges as a leader and another does not. Geneticists discovered part of the answer in our biology: studies based on twins suggest that about one-quarter to one-third of the variance in leadership role occupancy is due to a specific gene: rs4950

So let’s add genetic inheritance to the list of significant predictors of leadership emergence. But genetics are only part of the answer. And even for those who win the genetic lottery, early life experiences play a large role in determining whether their genetic predisposition will be strengthened or weakened. 

This is where social scientists pick up the story. Over the decades, they’ve conducted a sort of social archaeology, digging through the strata of influences — race, the glass ceiling, personality traits and the like — to identify where the roots of leadership are first established. 

They have largely zeroed in on three factors: socioeconomic status (SES) during childhood; personality traits such as social skills and ability to control emotions through adolescence; and intelligence. 

A link to opportunities or barriers 

In particular, research by Julian Barling of Smith School of Business, among others, shows that parents’ socioeconomic status plays an outsized role in setting children on the leadership path. (SES is a group identity that encompasses social and economic standing, level of education, profession and ethnic background.) The link between SES and leader emergence in adulthood involves cascading effects that shape leadership emergence at key points of an individual’s growth.

While he is best known for his research into transformational leadership, Barling has made important contributions to the area of leadership emergence. His 2016 study with Julie Weatherhead, one of his PhD students at the time, was based on data collected from almost 10,000 Americans over more than three decades regarding their socioeconomic status, labour force participation and childhood experiences. It suggested that persistent exposure to poverty during adolescence affected later leadership emergence due to the quality of schooling and the youth’s sense of personal mastery, the belief that individuals can overcome failure and control their own lives. 

In his study from 2022, with Steve Granger (John Molson School of Business), Julie Weatherhead and Nick Turner (Haskayne School of Business), and Shani Pupco (Smith), Barling went even deeper in exploring how the link between early exposure to SES adversity and leadership emergence develops over a lifespan. 

This recent study was based on analysis of a unique longitudinal dataset known as the British Cohort Study (BCS70). The BCS70 is an ongoing research project studying the health and development of people born in England, Scotland and Wales during the week of April 5 to 11, 1970. There have been 10 waves of data collection since 1970. 

Barling and his colleagues pulled data from five different points in time between 1970 and 1996, focusing on different factors in each period: the socioeconomic status of parents and children’s self-control; adolescents’ mental health, self-esteem and locus of control; and adults’ leadership role occupancy. Their hunch going in was that children raised in a family with high socioeconomic status would have greater self-control; that greater self-control would set them up with stronger psychological well-being during adolescence; and that greater well-being and self-esteem would open the door to leadership opportunities when they were adults. 

They had good reason to focus on children’s self-control and adolescent’s psychological well-being. 

Self-control is among the most widely studied constructs in the social sciences. It is considered a fundamental skill that, if developed early, can offer downstream benefits. A major study that followed a group of 1,000 children from birth to age 32 found that childhood self-control predicts physical and mental health, substance dependence, income, occupational prestige and criminal convictions in adulthood. 

Psychological well-being and self-esteem during adolescence can shape social relationships and mental resilience during adulthood and have been shown to predict leadership emergence. Adolescents with low psychological well-being or with poor self-esteem don’t see themselves as candidates for leadership positions. 

When Barling and his fellow researchers analyzed the BCS70 data, their hunch was validated. “Results show that the cumulative effects of early socioeconomic status predict children’s self-control at age 10, and self-control in turn predicts a higher likelihood of leadership role occupancy at age 26 via psychological well-being at age 16,” the researchers conclude in their paper.

That is not the only way that parental socioeconomic status indirectly affects the potential for children to be future leaders. Growing up in poverty has a major impact on a child’s brain and cognitive development, as well as on school behaviour and academic achievement during teenage years. People with poor cognitive skills — such as comprehension, memory and reasoning — find themselves behind the eight ball when they apply for a leadership position that requires solving problems and managing large numbers of people. 

In a longitudinal study using data from the BCS70, for example, models showed that 28 per cent of children with high cognitive abilities occupied leadership positions compared to 15 per cent of low cognitive ability children. 

Children raised in households in adverse socioeconomic conditions may not have parental role models in leadership positions, which could affect their own motivation to lead. They are more likely to have parents working in hazardous and precarious jobs, with little control over their working conditions. 

What are the solutions? 

Barling and others who have studied the roots of leadership have long argued in favour of primary interventions to reduce childhood poverty, such as minimum income initiatives or child credits. These have proven to increase students’ test scores and probability of completing high school, and to boost children’s consciousness and agreeableness, basically laying the groundwork for later leadership. 

There may be a biological reason for why these initiatives provide such wide-ranging benefits. As part of the Baby’s First Years study in the U.S., low-income mothers were randomly chosen to receive either a $333 or $20 monthly cash gift for the first few years of their children’s lives. The researchers recorded brain activity using EEG in 435 of the children at age one. Infants whose mothers received large gifts showed higher absolute EEG power than those whose mothers received nominal gifts. From this, the researchers concluded that reducing poverty can promote neuroplasticity in children. 

Minimum income policy prescriptions are costly and difficult for politicians to champion. But they aren’t the only options. We can use Barling’s recent insights from the British Cohort Study as guidance. If children’s self-control and adolescents’ psychological well-being are two crucial links connecting socioeconomic status and leadership emergence, why not start there? 

Studies confirm that self-control is a skill that can be taught. Interventions that cultivate a growth mindset — the belief that a trait can be improved through practice — have been shown to benefit children raised in low SES families

Similarly, boosting extracurricular activities and offering advanced classes to teens in high schools located in lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods would go some way to improving their psychological well-being and personal mastery. Unfortunately, in present conditions, these are the sorts of programs that are first to be cut or not offered at all. 

One thing these studies linking early family experience with leader emergence offer is a new paradigm of leadership development at work. Such programs are most often offered to managers who are identified as having high potential based on years of work experience; yet their life experiences are rarely considered, nor are they incorporated into development programs. This seems like a missed opportunity. Not everyone can or wants to assume the responsibility and stress that a leadership position entails, but taking a lifespan perspective could surface untapped leadership talent. And few organizations can afford to pass that up.