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Déjà Leonard is a copywriter and freelance journalist based in Calgary.

  • Research explores how early-life socioeconomic status influences leadership potential, finding that higher socioeconomic status during childhood is linked to better self-control and mental health, which correlate with leadership roles in adulthood
  • Companies can create more inclusive leadership opportunities by investing in early childhood development for lower socioeconomic groups, employing diverse recruitment practices and providing continued support to bridge social network and opportunity gaps

Leadership has been a long-studied topic inside and outside of the workplace.

“It’s one of these things that feels sort of elusive or ethereal. We attribute when things go well to people, and when things don’t go well to people, says Nick Turner, a researcher at the University of Calgary. “I think people are intrigued by leadership because we want to hold the world accountable.”

It’s no wonder millions of people are drawn to thought leaders in the area such as Simon Sinek, who is known for his concept of “Start With Why,” and Brené Brown, a research professor who brings a human-centric approach to leadership.

Although so many individuals have the capacity to become leaders, Mr. Turner, along with other Canadian researchers Julie Weatherhead, Julian Barling, Shani Pupco and Steve Granger, recently published a study that takes a closer look at the early-life factors that affect who actually becomes one.

Who becomes a leader – and why?

Several studies look at how a person’s socioeconomic status (SES) affects their leadership style.

One referenced in Mr. Turner’s study shows that SES background affected the behaviour of chief executive officers. Those from either higher or lower SES backgrounds in the United States were more likely to take strategic risks than those from a middle SES background.

Another found that if someone lived through the Great Famine in China, between the ages of six and 13, it had “a negative and exponential impact on strategic risk-taking behaviour among children who later became corporate CEOs.”

Mr. Turner’s research looks at the relationship between socioeconomic status at birth and during early childhood, and how this status influences key developmental outcomes such as self-control and psychological well-being, which in turn affect leadership potential.

“The opportunities and the experiences afforded to people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds shape their self control and their mental health, and these factors occur at quite an early age,” he says.

To summarize the results, people with higher socioeconomic status, at birth and in their childhood, develop better self control at age 10. That self control enables people to foster better mental health, which was measured at age 16. For example, those with better mental health reported feeling happy within their circumstances, were confident in their appearance and didn’t want to change who they were. That, in turn, relates to the likelihood they have taken on a leadership position at age 26.

However, just because someone comes from a more affluent background and is more likely to become a leader, doesn’t mean they are the most capable.

“It’s also about potential that we don’t know,” Mr. Turner says of those who may have had a completely different life trajectory had they been from a more affluent family.

This challenges some of the conventional wisdom about what it takes to be a good leader.

He says people and companies often look at leadership as a skill that is strengthened through training and experience, without consideration for the early childhood factors that set the stage for whether many of us become leaders.

Recommendations for creating inclusive leadership opportunities

Mr. Turner says there are three strategies companies can adopt to help foster more inclusive leadership opportunities and “level the playing field”:

  1. Invest in early childhood development: Companies can support programs that enhance education and development for kids, especially from families with lower socioeconomic status. This could be through funding or even providing staff to volunteer.
  2. Diverse recruitment practices: Modify recruitment criteria to value a wider range of life experiences and backgrounds, including those who have overcome socioeconomic adversity. For example, ask candidates how they have overcome challenges in their lives and what they have learned from it, instead of focusing just on awards and accolades.
  3. Continued support: People of a higher socioeconomic status have access to certain social networks and job opportunities that others may not. Companies can create or support targeted mentorship and career-related programs that give people from different backgrounds the opportunity to close this gap.

“These sorts of investments in early-life circumstances and conditions, I think for leadership, mean that we’ll set up a talent pool that will be far richer than if we only focus on those who come to these opportunities through wealth or affluence,” Mr. Turner says.

What I’m reading around the web

  • Mental health claims are on the rise in Canada. While this trend shows that more people are seeking the help they need, there is still work to do to break down the stigma and support mental health at work.
  • The cost of living continues to rise and more Canadians are feeling “financial guilt” and haven’t been able to save as much money as they would like to. Here’s how to overcome that shame.
  • If you’re looking to stay on top of everything AI, you’ll want to read this joint report from Microsoft and LinkedIn. It provides insight into why some leaders are slow to move on investing in AI and who is using it at work – and why they’re doing it secretly.

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