The Professional Triumph of the Firstborns

from The Atlantic

When corporate boards pick out new CEOs, they scrutinize candidates’ qualifications, studying their performance in previous jobs and vetting their academic credentials. But a recent study suggests they might want to look even further back in the histories of corporate hopefuls: CEOs’ experiences in childhood seem to shape what kind of leaders they grow up to be.

The study—co-authored by the University of Chicago’s Todd Henderson and Florida State University’s Irena Hutton—looked at more than 650 CEOs’ birth order, family size, and history of childhood trauma, as well as their parents’ occupations and socioeconomic standing. This information covered a range of CEOs who held their positions in the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s, and was assembled from a smattering of sources, including newspapers, biographies, trade publications, and alumni magazines.

More here.

Posted in Business, Leadership and tagged , .


  1. In capitalist societies like in the United States, companies are always looking for ways to make more money. Staying where you are and being content is not necessarily the goal. Therefore, CEOs who may be more willing to take risks are ideal. While taking risks is often scary, especially when you’re talking about the loss of millions of dollars, it can incredibly be important when moving your company up is your first priority. The need for companies to keep making more and more money drives questions like the one posed in this article: how does homelife affect someone’s ability to be a great CEO? Questions about nature vs. nurture aren’t necessarily new, but bringing them into the business world certainly will have its benefits, and possibly some downfalls. On one hand, this research will definitely help companies broaden their view of what a good CEO looks like. Often, people think of CEOs as men who grew up rich and from then on had a leg up in the game. They had access to better education, more opportunities, and a good home life. However, as this article states, that is no longer the exact ideal. The person that they put forward, someone who was not as affluent growing up and maybe suffered some form of trauma, would be willing to take more risks. Like I stated before, risk assessment is incredibly important when holding a CEO-like position if you want to make more money and grow your business. On the other hand, however, thinking like this might lead corporate boards down the wrong path. While it is important for companies to know what type of person would be best to hold certain positions, they can’t pigeonhole themselves too much. Sometimes looking for the “perfect CEO” isn’t going to get you where you want to be. A lot goes into to picking someone to hold these positions, and not everyone fits into this mold. Many business owners take risks, even though they grew up rich. Similarly, many older siblings fail to be as good as this article thinks they should be. From my experience, despite being the youngest in my family, I will be the first to graduate from college. I’m also the only one that has an idea of what they want to do with their lives. The same is true for many of my friends. In this case, families like mine are the exception. Still, if questions like these are taken too seriously, companies will fail to see the benefits of hiring a younger sibling or someone with a good home life. Also, leadership can be taught, and is in school systems throughout America. Now more than ever, leadership is one of the most important words to college admission boards, whether or not the applicant is the oldest sibling or went through emotional trauma. I don’t deny that this research is interesting and important, I just think it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

  2. Overall, this article studies the concept of how a CEO should be picked in comparison to how they are actually picked. The author, Joe Pinsker breaks into the psychology based idea that people’s abilities and personalities are shaped from various factors in their childhood upbringing. With this in mind, should a CEO be picked based on their previous job experience, history with the company..etc. OR be picked based on knowledge the employer can gain about the candidates’ childhood? After reading the article, I came to think that there should be a mix of the two methods because there are special case circumstances with certain people and companies. For example, say a candidate is running for an executive position at IBM and happen to have suffered terrible abuse as a child but overcame their struggles. Before applying for the job at IBM, this individual worked in successful roles for other companies and went to a great college. When this person goes to interview at IBM and the interviewer asks “tell me about your family history” they will already have one strike against them, since there will be few positive things to discuss as well as the fear that there is underlying family trauma. However, this can also be viewed as success story when the interviewer listens to how this person overcame and sees their top notch credentials. One problem I see with seeking information about candidates childhoods’ is not everybody is willing to share and, legally, do not have to share certain information. So go back to the IBM scenario- say the person who suffered childhood abuse did not share this information because they never overcame the abuse. This person gets the job and begins treating the people they are now in charge of poorly; the office dynamic is negatively affected. This hypothetical is where gathering former ‘classic resume’ information from previous employers is valuable.

  3. Staff writer Joe Pinsker presents an interesting addition to the rigorous modern interview and selection criterion a number of corporate CEO’s must undergo, that shows the link between family background, professional practice and decision-making in the work space. I found this article very interesting, because while I myself am the firstborn to three other siblings, I had not realized that there were certain traits unique to this family role that play out in the business setting. Characteristics such as responsibility with managing a household and the rift between risk-averse judgments when it comes to the family business vs. the hunt for opportunities crafting into college as the forerunner, bring the question, “Tell me more about your family background,” into perspective. However, while it is increasingly necessary for CEO’s to be reviewed based on non-traditional criteria like their personalities and their experience with industry turmoil, the elements of their family background should not outshadow the potential that their work experience and referenced work-life ethics have to offer. By the time a CEO has been approved into the interview and selection phase, there has been a plethora of acceptable and recognized qualifications that set them apart from the general pool of applicants. Using fundamentals of their family background, such as childhood trauma or the “firstborn experience”, should only be a front to understand the motives and driven path of the applicant as a person. Risk-aversion and the decisions made with company spending should be assessed by this criteria with a grain of salt. The intricacies of their background might also be too overwhelming for a 5-minute presentation window. For example, someone who initially describes themselves as the last-born with successful parents, would be intuitively undermined before he/she thinks to present their story of successive defeat and victory in a time when loans to pay off his/her older siblings’ college debt riveted his family’s quality of life and made him a strategic opportunist in a home with aging economic dependents. This is still, however, an interesting platform to use to assess the work-life abilities of CEO candidate, but it must be understood in the realm of its implications.

  4. Most people’s goals in life are to become successful in life. In the business world, becoming a CEO is something that people try to achieve. The article above explains how corporate boards, when deciding who to promote/hire to become a CEO, should use the applicant’s work experience and academic credentials as well as looking into the applicant’s childhood. This all came from a study conducted by Henderson and Hutton, which studied the correlation between a CEO’s current position as a CEO with their childhood experiences, traumas, socioeconomic standing, etc. It was found that those individuals who were firstborn or an only child in the family had a higher chance of becoming a CEO than those who were not. Although this seems very impractical and, in a way, very unbelievable, this isn’t supposed to be an exact science. But it is a correlation that was noticed in a sample study that was taken over many years that allowed for this inference to be created. Supposedly, according to many people, this study seems to have accurately depicted why firstborns and only children end up getting these managerial positions. Based on the facts for why this may occur, I completely agree with the study. One of the reasons why I agree with the study is because I am the eldest child in my family and I have a natural knack for wanting to always take control or be the advisor of things, as well as myself organizing events and tasks around the house. This is even shown in my work at the YMCA because I always tend to be the individual who runs the pool deck when my boss is not around because I enjoy myself controlling the success and organization of pool deck. I do not think that my parents gave me a lot of head-on-attention as the article expressed contributes to such managerial behavior, but I feel that what lead me to this point is the fact that I am the eldest and I know I have to be successful to better my life. That is why I need to put more than 100% of my effort into things to obtain the result I wanted–or at least a very close one. None of my family members are successful, and to me, that makes my success much harder. I do not know what will get me to the top and I don’t have the connections that other families do, which is why my success path will be a trial and error path unlike those who already have formulas that make their success path much easier.

    Finally, on the topic of the firstborn having a personality similar to their parents, I agree with that. I have the determination to achieve great things like my father as well as his managerial attitude, but I also have my mother’s stubbornness and very forceful attitude that lets people know she wants things DONE. The mix of these personalities helps me accomplish many things that I want in life. For one, I finally got the raise that I deserved and without these personality traits, I don’t know if I ever would have been able to get it. Then, I can manage my time and resources and complete household tasks effectively as well as my homework. Finally, I can properly organize group objects in a way that gives everyone a task that is of equal importance and allows for a sort of checks and balance system between each person. Meaning that it’s not an “I finish my assignment and I am done” sort of thing but everyone checks over the next person’s work and makes sure that they have everything done properly. Although this correlation may not be perfect and not every person in the world will end up becoming a CEO that has these characteristics, the study shows a new way of choosing candidates when looking to fill managerial positions at a corporation.

  5. Chief Executive Officers of large companies need to have a certain set of personal and professional skills that develop over long periods of time- just like everything else. People are always growing and changing due to experiences and situations that they live through. Within families, firstborns tend to grow up in a different environment than their siblings for a variety of different reasons not relevant to this specific discussion. That different environment, though, affects the firstborn child’s personality and skill set, making them different in some ways than their siblings.
    Although this study is not on a large enough scale to make a definitive statement about the likelihood of a firstborn becoming a CEO in comparison to their siblings, there is correlation between the two. The article provides several reasons for this being a possible situation of causation, but as a first child, there are some key aspects that the article does not highlight enough. For example, many firstborns would agree that parents tend to be stricter with them in comparison to younger siblings in every facet of their life. For older siblings, paving the way with rules and testing the waters with their parents, rules and punishments tend to be more serious than they are with younger siblings. In that way, older siblings tend to have more self-control and discipline, which are useful skills for Chief Executive Officers.
    The article also comments on socioeconomic status in young life as a factor in riskiness in adulthood. Adults from more secure backgrounds tend to be less risky, while adults from less secure backgrounds tend to be riskier. While this may at first thought seem reversed, it does make sense. As children, people who live in secure households can be assumed to have lived in a home where the parents have a strong financial plan. By witnessing their parents financial plan and success, they are likely to absorb that information which will affect them in their future. In families with a less secure financial position, children are not taught to save their money and are not shown an example of that, which puts them in the position to be riskier in their financial future.
    If we are to follow the common idea that children absorb everything at a young age, then we are to believe that children are going to follow these patterns as adults which will ultimately control their future. This idea, unfortunately, gives no room for a person to realize faults in their personal skills and to make an effort to change those skills in order to improve themselves in comparison to the skills they received from their youth. It may seem that a lot of CEOs are firstborn from wealthy families, but does the necessarily have to be true? I doubt it. There are plenty of CEOs who are not from that kind of background who determined what they wanted in their future and followed it until they got there.

  6. When I was looking through articles to read, I immediately decided on “The Professional Triumph of the Firstborns,” written by Joe Pinsker, and I found this piece very intriguing. A large part of my interest happens to be because I am a firstborn in my family, however, considering I am an only child, I could also be classified as the “last born”. I thought I would be very pleased with the contents of this article for this reason, which can be a rarity when it comes to mandatory course readings, and my assumption proved to be true. I was very pleased with the subject matter of the article, and then the thoughts that the subject matter provoked in my head.
    While reading through the article many of quotes stuck out to me and resonated with me, although there was one that I believe will stick with me for longer than I expected. I am referring to when Pinsker stated, “CEOs who are the first in their family to achieve significant economic success are by definition charting their own paths and do not have a surefire path to follow, freeing them up to be more original and creative in their approach” (Pinsker). Neither of my parents have achieved a significant amount of economic success, and for that reason I have thought this statement prior to reading this article. Additionally, for this reason, my parents lack of immense economic success makes me want to obtain enough economic success to make up for what they did not. This is obviously easier said than done, but if obtained I would then let them reap the benefits of my success, or the success they could have had, had they been granted the proper circumstance, which I ideally will be granted.
    To continue, I enjoyed the bigger picture effect this article could have on its readers, like myself. For instance, some like myself who is technically a firstborn, will read this as almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, in hopes that because they are the first born they will be able to achieve this success. This can give them some sense of hope maybe they did not have prior to reading, and it can be one extra extraneous factor that could help them be optimistic towards success. Hopefully keeping in mind that being a firstborn is one very miniscule factor when it comes to achieving economic success, however, in the context of this article it cannot hurt. In the same sense, first borns may read this article and feel a sense of false reassurance, simply because they are a firstborn, a factor that may help their professionalism but cannot stand alone. Moreover, I am very interested in those who are not firstborns and decide to take the time to read this article, the title with either draw them in or turn them away. For those that decide to read further, I am intrigued to wonder how they would react, would they use this as motivation to become even more determined to be successful because they want to prove this article and its data wrong? If I was in their shoes, I believe that is how I would react.
    Another fact that stood out to me in the reading was when a child is the first born they get to spend more time with their parents on their own, something that is so obvious, but could truly have a large impact. Specifically, Pinsker quoted Todd Henderson in his article stating, “‘Firstborns are more likely to have college degrees, and even before that get lots of mom-and-dad time early on, which might make them more successful later, that explains why more firstborns are CEOs—they get a bigger investment in their human capital’” (Pinsker). Again, I can relate to this article on a personal level, because being an only child, I spend a great deal of time with my parents, most likely more than any person with siblings ever would, especially because we are extremely close. I am clearly very fortunate for the relationship I have with my parents, particularly when I think of the many people who do not have a good relationship with their parents, and their success could potentially be hindered because of this feat regarding their parents that is completely out of their control.
    It deeply saddens me that there are many factors that can impede a person’s success that they have no power over. Although some of these can be overcome, they can be extremely discouraging, and at times are very difficult to persevere through that trying may seem counterintuitive. This fact is why I never take any factors, even ones that can easily be overlooked, for granted, and I hope to one day be able to somehow help these disadvantaged and potentially discouraged people.
    Overall, this article was an extremely eye-opening piece for me to read, and the facts presented and the facts that I came to conclusions to through reading will resonate with me for some time. I look forward to hopefully remembering this article and what I have said about it when the day comes that I achieve my success. I hope that they conduct this study again in 10 years and maybe they will do a study on “only children” and I will be one of the success stories.

  7. I have never given it much thought of how being a first born child can reflect on job position, but after reading this article I am very interested in the research that has been done that has determined this conclusion. Since I am a first born the title caught my attention. I agree with the author that a CEO’s experience in their childhood can shape them into the leader that they are. My sibling and I had a similar upbringing, the only difference was that my parents were stricter with me as a child. After reading this article, besides the difference in personality, I think we are the people we are today because of how we were raised. I found it interesting in the article how the oldest child personalities resemble their parents more. In my family I think this statement is true. I resemble many if not half and half of both my parents personalities. I think my sibling has traits from my parents, but personality wise there are many differences.
    I think this article has very interesting points, but I do not think this applies to all successful people. There are many successful people in business that may be the youngest child or middle child that have the same if not more success than the first born. I find this study to be very unique and I would also want researchers to look into what kind of job positions a younger sibling is more likely to have.

  8. The information presented in this article is topics that I have learned about before, but it is applied in a new situation that I think is interesting to look at. I have learned about how birth order shapes how kids behave and their personalities, but I think it is very interesting to look at how that affects the chance of being a CEO. The findings from the study concluded that almost half of the CEOs hired were first borns which was much more than the proportion of first borns in the population at the time. I was not really surprised by the fact that first borns are more likely to be CEOs because they tend to have leadership tendencies because of their position in their family, but I was surprised that the percent was close to half. I also found it fascinating that first borns that come from higher socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be risk-averse than first borns that come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Before reading this article, I would have figured that this might be the opposite because I might think that people that come from more affluent backgrounds that are used to having money might not be as afraid to take risks because they have something to fall back on, but now learning the truth, I can see how someone who comes from a lower socio-economic background may have had to take risks previously in their life to get to the position in their life where they have the opportunity to be a CEO.
    The article also talked about how previously researchers believe that first borns were less likely to take risks compared to non first borns which Henderson and Hutton found to not usually be true for the case of CEOs. They said that it was true within family companies which I thought was an interesting finding because I would not expect their to be a difference between what type of company was being talked about. The reason they said this finding is the case is that in a family company parents tend to choose the child to run the company that is more like them in personality which tends to be the first born, so therefore, they choose the firstborn to continue running the company even though they may not be the best choice. I found this to be very interesting because if someone asked me what child would be picked to run a company, I would probably agree that they would choose the first born mainly on the basis that it is more fair, but it makes sense that the real reason most of the time would be because they are most like their parents. I think people in these situations probably do not even know that that is a factor in their decision it is probably unconscious.

  9. I do not really think that asking a potential candidate about their family history is very ethical for companies to ask. To me, it is similar to asking someone’s age – it is a personal matter. Someone could come from a family where the parents are divorced and they did not have a lot of money growing up but that does not necessarily mean that they are going to fail in life or that they do not have the opportunity to become a CEO.

    I think it is interesting how they associated nurturing parents to the success of the children. The firstborn child seems to always get the most parental time because the parents do not know initially all the elements of caring for a baby. Once the second child is born the parents are more accustomed to what comes with raising a child and therefore do not physically spend the same amount of time nurturing the child.

    I like the point the article makes about the direct relationship between family financial backgrounds influencing the CEO’s financial decisions. While I believe background does not influence potential, it definitely influences choices in the workplace. I think it also has to do with the fact that firstborns may feel like they have to work harder to exceed their parent’s expectations, affirming the idea that more CEOs are firstborn children. This idea also goes along with parents choosing their first-born child to run the family company because that child would be the most like them.

    In my opinion, I do not believe that socioeconomic backgrounds should be taken into account when interviewing potential employees. While yes, it can influence behavior, it does not change the person’s capabilities of fulfilling the role. Qualifications are all that should matter.

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