Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Leadership is a popular topic mainly because most of us are attracted to the rewards and others because of the good that leaders can accomplish.  The authors, Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja identify three perks of being a leader--salary, status and sex. They study evolution to better understand leadership.  Most books deal with the how to get to be a leader or how to lead, but don't really touch the follower aspect.

Leadership means nothing without followers.  Why does anyone want to follow another person?  The authors go back to pre-history, our hunter-gatherer days to understand.  In the end they favor some of the earliest practices and suggest adaptations to modern reality.  Back in the African savannah days of our history, groups were small and it became crucial to co-ordinate activities to survive.  Circumstances dictated a level of equality creating a balance between leaders and followers.

A strong person might be the leader, but they could not survive without followers.  Leadership emerges whenever there is a need for social co-ordination for example with basic human activities as hunting, food gathering, sleeping, migrating.  Groups with better direction will outperform other groups.

We needed strong leaders to make decisions regarding food and protection from external forces (wild animals, human enemies).  We valued strength and intelligence.  The groups tended to be small  and members knew each other very well.  If a leader became too arrogant there were ways of controlling them.  Undermining leaders with gossip and public discussion, mockery and disobedience.  Similar strategies were seen with chimpanzees, but with humans we added desertion of our leaders.  This was one step short of more extreme measures such as assassination.

Leadership was often dispersed among different skills such as hunting, medicine, warring, tool making, etc.  Although there often was a tendency for one leader to gain more roles it was also resisted by the followers.

The Agricultural Revolution which came after a million or so years of evolution changed the balance.  For the first time wealth could be accumulated and some individuals could get more rewards with power.  Groups became bigger and everyone did not know everyone.  Chimpanzees tend to form groups around 50, but humans with greater brain power could handle groups of 150.  Once beyond that, the process becomes less personal.  Leadership is too often romanticized whereas in many cases quiet leadership is more effective.

After diagnosis, what are the prescriptions for today?

Dominance is dangerous.  We should favour followers more than we do currently.  Distributive leadership should be encouraged.  Consensual decision making has been a key factor in the success of the human race.  

Followers chose leaders on criteria important in the African savannahs that are no longer as crucial.  We do not need as much emphasis on strength, height or the male gender as before.  The authors suggest we minimize our natural bias although that is much easier said than done.

Authors point out today leaders tend to be picked from the top down.  Some progressive companies encourage involvement of subordinates.  The advantage is that the followers will have more respect for those who give them their direction.

We should be concerned about the pay (and other perks) gap between CEO's and their workers.  It not only causes resentment, but it also attracts selfish people who do not always have the best interest of their subordinates top of mind.

At an individual level the authors suggest their readers should find their own niche and develop skills that benefit the group they are in.

Mark and Anjana offer many suggestions for how we should go forward that merit further discussion.   Professor Mark Van Vugt, evolutionary, social and organizational  psychologist based in the Netherlands has a website worth investigating at http://www.professormarkvanvugt.com/

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