News & Insight
September 2003

The Effect of Birth Order On Leadership Ability

Ben Dattner, Ph.D.

Are first-born children destined to become domineering, authoritarian bosses? Is your younger sibling liable to break free and emerge as a rebellious but creative guitarist?

For many years, researchers have studied birth order and drawn conclusions about how it influences personality and behavior. The basic premise is that children seek parental favor by using strategies that are determined by their birth order, which, in turn, leads to the development of distinct personalities. Of course, there are a number of variables, such as gender, temperament, physical characteristics, socioeconomic class, family size and degree of conflict between siblings and parents that influence and alter the impact that birth order has on personality.

What has become generally accepted about firstborns is that they consistently support the status quo represented by their parents. They tend to be ambitious, conscientious and achievement-oriented and, because they are initially bigger, stronger and smarter than their younger siblings, firstborns are thought to be more assertive, dominant and confident. Younger siblings, on the other hand, are born into a family system where one or more niches are already occupied by older siblings who have the benefit of age and experience. As a result, it's a logical strategy for laterborns to rebel against the status quo that is represented by their parents and their older siblings.

Although few people would disagree that early family experiences and sibling rivalry are important influences on personality, there's been scant agreement about the specific manner in which birth order influences personality, and in which personality influences leadership, and, therefore, the specific ways in which birth order influences leadership. Still, the best supported and most compelling of the research suggests that firstborns are more conservative and laterborns are more rebellious and adaptable. So, we tend to expect firstborns to have leadership traits associated with authority, rules and traditions, with laterborns exhibiting an emphasis on group cooperation and community.

The relationship between birth order and business leadership hasn't yet been the subject of any empirical research. In the absence of this research, I would predict that business leaders who are firstborns are more likely to support the status quo while laterborns are more likely to support innovation. In today's rapidly changing, globally competitive business environment, business leaders constantly need to implement technological and procedural innovations in order to compete successfully. It could be hypothesized that laterborn, more flexible leaders will feel more comfortable managing in the business world and more likely to succeed in the global economy.

Of course, birth order itself is merely a proxy for what we ultimately want to know: just how can a combination of traits and characteristics lead to accurate predictions of attitudes and behaviors in different situations?

Ben Dattner is a member of WJM Associates' coaching and assessment faculty, and is an adjunct professor in the Industrial and Organizational Psychology Master of Arts Program at New York University.

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