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The Epigenetics of Organizational Leadership

Scientists used to think that your DNA was your destiny. You had what you had and that was it; nature had spoken before you breathed your first breath. Certainly environment—the “nurture” part of the nature versus nurture quandary—mattered, but genetics was immutable in shaping the outcomes of one’s health and physiology.

Enter epigenetics, a relatively new field of study that examines gene expression and shows a much more complicated picture of how we develop. In short, DNA isn’t destiny. Our environment actually plays a large part in determining which genes get turned on and which don’t. The consequences are far-reaching for biology, but also for leadership.

I have begun thinking about the ramifications of epigenetics for education and organizational leadership. Here’s what I’ve concluded so far:

1. The power of choice. All organizations have a “DNA” of sorts, which if described explicitly, details its culture and history. Given that, what leaders need to consider is how their actions, attention, and choices either support their DNA, turning parts of it on, or change their DNA, turning off parts of its history and culture. Choices determine which genes within the DNA will be expressed and which will not.
2. The power of process. One of the most available pathways for fine-tuning organizational epigenetics is organizational process. As an independent school, we experience a handful of processes all the time. Admissions, advancement, hiring, strategic planning; all have processes inherent in them, processes which contain opportunities for turning on and off various parts of our DNA.

Your organization’s DNA has a huge influence on its outcomes and potential. The question is: which parts do you want turned on and which would be better turned off?


  1. Great way to conceptualize how to think about human systems in terms of epigenetics. Reminds of a sheep farmer character in Barbara Kingsolver’s recent environmental novel, Flight Behavior. She tells another character something to the effect, “It doesn’t do any good to complain about your herd: they are the sum of all your earlier choices.”

  2. I agree Ruth Ann. A very wise colleague said to me recently that where you are on any given day with your school is mostly about decisions that were made a year ago. I’ve been testing this notion out this year and think that there is much truth in it.

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