How birth order affects CEOs

Kilberry | 12 January 2022

While first-borns are more likely to become CEOs, later-born CEOs are more likely to take strategic risks.

Updated: 2 August 2023

Boards tasked with selecting and evaluating candidates for the CEO position might want to consider a not-so-obvious question during the succession process – CEOs’ birth order.

In celebration of its centennial magazine issue in 2017, Forbes curated a list titled, “100 Greatest Living Business Minds,” featuring individuals who have either invented or innovated in a way that transcends their field.

Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk are among the exclusive few who were nominated, and while the list itself is not ordered, these three CEOs share a similar rank in a different way – they’re all first-borns.

In a recent study published in PLOS One, the researchers surveyed a peer advisory group of small and midsize private firm CEOs and found that CEOs were significantly more likely to be first-borns. Although the heir apparent for traditional family firms is often the oldest child, the study also found a first-born advantage among CEOs of non-family firms.

For CEOs of larger, publicly listed firms, another study also found the first-born advantage in a 24-year sample of S&P 1500 CEOs.

One reason this advantage exists might be personality differences attributable to birth order. For instance, there is evidence that first-borns are more likely to be high-achieving and conscientious, or even-keeled and willing to assume responsibility.

Such characteristics are important for corporate performance and leadership more broadly. However, some research suggests these differences are overinflated and mischaracterized.

Another reason might be differences in cognitive horsepower. There is evidence that older siblings have higher intelligence scores than younger siblings, and such intellectual firepower is
considered one of the best predictors of job performance.

But there can be downsides to being a first-born CEO – they can be less risk-tolerant.

A recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal explored the impact that CEOs’ birth order has on their strategic decisions. Across two samples, South Korean and American, the researchers found that later-born CEOs took greater risks, such that each increase in CEOs’ birth order enhanced their risky spending by 19%. This effect was especially pronounced when there was greater sibling rivalry – that is, a smaller age gap between a CEO and their closest sibling.

The Bottom Line

  • CEO upbringing matters. No two CEOs are created equally and not everyone can be CEO. At the same time, CEOs’ formative experiences in their childhood are important considerations when assessing how CEOs view, and perform in, their role.

  • Context is critical. While first-borns are more likely to become CEOs, later-born CEOs are more likely to take strategic risks. In a succession context where a business is operating in an uncertain or turnaround situation, a chief executive who is more risk tolerant may be needed. Thus, context will always dictate which candidates are better suited for the role.

  • Assess for cognitive horsepower and personality. Putting aside speculation as to why birth order matters for CEOs, an extensive body of scientific evidence points uniformly to the importance of intellect and personality in understanding who will excel as CEO under specific conditions. Hiring the right leader for the top job requires looking beyond how candidates show up on paper or in unstructured interviews.


100 Adelaide St W
Suite 2910
Toronto, ON M5H 1S3
(416) 945-6611

New York

48 Wall Street
Suite 1100
New York, NY 10005
(212) 292-3800