Over the last 100 years, we’ve all been fascinated by the idea that our sibling birth order has a significant effect on our personalities as adults.
Birth order differences have been popularised by the psychology articles found in magazines like Time, The Huffington Post and ABC Online. These are not academic journals, so there is no testing of the hypothesis.
What is noticeable is the experiential quality of these articles and how we all see ourselves a little bit in the descriptions of similarities. We might want to pay attention to the anomalies we ignore, but we don’t. Fundamentally, we’re all interested in what makes us tick and how we relate to each other.
The first organisation that we join usually is a family. The family might take many different forms, and in theory, its influence during those early years must be enormous.
The eldest child gets most of the attention because of the newness of parenthood for the mother and father. As a result, the child develops faster. They are said to be high achievers and a bit bossy. They take their family responsibilities seriously and tend to adhere to the status quo.
A study from Essex University concluded that firstborn children, especially females, can develop into ambitious leaders, and drive is one of the main characteristics of first-borns.
They may also be the most well qualified of their siblings and carry the weight of their parents’ aspirations on their shoulders, by doing well at school and university.
This situation is less so with the subsequent children to come along.
First Child Traits in Adulthood Include:
The second child’s experiences are very different from that first. In their book The Secret Power of Middle Children, psychologist Catherine Salman and journalist Kathrin Schumann discuss how the disadvantages of being the second child turn into advantages in adulthood.
Second children receive much less parental attention. However, they also are less burdened with responsibility and expectations.
They tend to be independent adults with a robust social network of friends and colleagues. They make excellent leaders and team players.
Journalist at Time Magazine, Jeffery Kluger, agrees, “at the heart of nearly all jobs is that kind of relationship management – connecting, negotiating, brokering peace between two sides.”
Kluger goes on to say, “middle siblings may not all wind up as Chief Executives, but whatever they do, they’re likely to do it with more collegially and agreeably – and as a result more successfully than other siblings.”
In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins stresses the importance of interpersonal skills such as humility and empathy as the key to extraordinary leadership. This then follows on to incredibly successful companies. Although this is a gross generalisation, middle children seem to have the interpersonal foundations to be great leaders of companies.
Second / Middle Child Traits in Adulthood Include:
Then comes the last sibling. The baby of the family. By this time, the parents have loosened up. The child isn’t confined with structures, rules, and guidelines that the first child had and sees the vastness of possibility more fully than any of their other siblings. It’s not that these children end up as adults who think outside the box. For them, there is no box.
These adults disdain authority that confines them, giving rise to an outgoing, adventurous, and rebellious streak.
Psychologist and author of the ‘Birth Order Book’, Dr Kevin Lennon, describes the last born as gregarious, witty, and relaxed.
These adults may be challenging to manage if approached conventionally. They may prefer democratic, flat management structures or networks rather than traditional hierarchies.
Last born adults are inclined to take more risks than their siblings and tend towards entrepreneurial ventures or more creative, experimental pursuits. For example, the Wright Brothers were the third and fourth born of five children who survived into adulthood. Their position in the family exemplifies innovative thinking, stubbornness, and an adventurous streak.
Youngest Child Traits in Adulthood Include:
So, this hypothesis suggests that birth order moulds adult leadership styles. The firstborn is secure, mature, and conformist, whilst the younger siblings become creative risk-taking rebels.
The central idea for this can be traced back to psychologist Frank J. Sulloway’s influential book Born to Rebel and has had a powerful colouring of our thinking ever since.
In Berlin, Ralph Hertwig of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development said of Sulloway’s work, “I thought, and still think that it is plausible and intuitive”.
Up to this point, the jury is still definitely out on whether the hypothesis will hold up the scientific scrutiny. There is no consensus yet, but if you are, wise elder, a charming middle child or an entrepreneurial baby, I’d be interested to hear your experiences.
Revealing the leadership secrets for a successful business
Lessons from high performing business leaders