Children with the potential to go to university can be identified by the age of three, according to research unveiled this week.
By this young age, it can also be determined who should and who should not be encouraged to aspire to leadership positions.
The controversial findings of a pilot study, reported this week at the British Academy of Management, have far-reaching consequences, the study's leader said.
David Lane, a senior lecturer in marketing at Leeds Business School who specialises in leadership, said he was "completely shocked and stunned" by the behaviour he observed among a group of infants attending a day nursery over two and a half years.
"I was incredulous when I realised that these infants had their roles determined by the age of two and potentially by the age of one," Dr Lane said.
The group of six children separated quickly into a leader, a deputy leader, a creative adviser, two followers and an outcast. He said that the children never varied from their roles during his observation.
"This leads me to conclude that if the demonstration of leadership and other roles is carried through to later life, then by the age of three - perhaps even two or one - leadership potential can be identified. This should be nurtured and developed."
The pilot study is intended to be the start of an 18-year longitudinal study of children and their parents. Dr Lane said spotting talent early would mean that fewer education resources are wasted: "Not all children can benefit from a university education."
Kathryn Gerrard, a mother of three children and a teacher for 16 years, said parents would find the idea deeply divisive.
"In my professional experience, the age of two or three is far too soon to be able to say categorically that a child's personality will fit in a particular group.
"My daughter (initially) took the lead in selecting and determining play, and yet two years later her twin brother has taken the dominant role."
There are many variables that influence a child's development, she said.
"As teachers, we cannot be in the business of selecting children at three, or even five, for special nurturing. We need to provide that for all."