PsychologicalScience: New research concludes that the foundations of leadership may be laid early in life, suggesting that our cognitive abilities as children strongly influence our odds of moving up the corporate ladder as adults. Analyzing data from almost 17,000 working individuals in the UK collected in two major studies over a span of 4 decades, psychological scientists Michael Daly, Mark Egan, and Fionnuala O’Reilly of Stirling University found that high scores for cognitive abilities at age 10 dramatically improved the odds of becoming the boss by age 50.
“The results suggest that early individual differences in childhood
general cognitive ability may profoundly shape trajectories of
leadership across working life,” the researchers write in the journal Leadership Quarterly.
At age 10 or 11, children in the study completed measures of their
verbal skills, reasoning, and general cognitive abilities. Beginning in
their 20s, the participants were asked every 10 years or so whether they
managed others at work and, if so, whether they supervised more or less
than 25 people.
As expected, children with high scores for cognitive abilities were
more likely to occupy leadership positions as adults. For the cohort of
children born in 1970, around 37% of those with high scores occupied
leadership positions compared to 25.4% of low cognitive ability
children. This gap was even more pronounced (27.8% vs. 15.1%) in
participants from the cohort born in 1958.
“It appears that the predisposition towards effective reasoning and
problem solving in childhood continues into adulthood and acts to foster
leadership potential including the ability to supervise and manage
large numbers of subordinates,” Daly and colleagues write.
And the researchers found that the relationship between cognitive
ability and leadership was partly explained by participants’ educational
attainment — the higher their cognitive ability was at 10 years old,
the more likely participants were to complete an advanced degree. Higher
education, in turn, was associated with holding management positions in
“The greater attainment and skill development associated with high
levels of education appeared to be recognized by employers and partially
explained why such children went on to leadership roles,” Daly and
However, the researchers found a substantial “leadership gap” that
emerged between men and women. Women occupied management positions at
much lower rates than men, regardless of their cognitive abilities; by
age 50, only around 30% of women were managers, compared to around 50%
It may seem obvious that smart kids turn into smart adults who are
better equipped to take on management roles, but previous studies have
found little association between general cognitive ability and
This study was unique in tracking a huge number of participants over
four decades. Prior research has been unable to follow participants for
such extended periods of time, which may explain why the link between
childhood cognitive ability and leadership potential has not previously
“It is perhaps unsurprising that those with high levels of cognitive
ability appear to thrive and go on to occupy leadership positions in the
cognitively demanding environments that characterize modern
organizations,” the researchers conclude.