The release of Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma’s Mandela Moment

November 15, 2010

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma inevitably brings to mind the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa. Should we see this as Burma’s ‘Mandela Moment’ and a step on its long road to political freedom?

The overwhelming similarity found in examining the cases of Aung San and Nelson Mandela is the sense of how non-violent opposition may successfully threaten a powerful and oppressive regime. But as Mandela presciently noted, the road to freedom is a long and hard one.

Idealised influence

Students of leadership will recognise the power of charisma at work. Both leaders project an overpowering sense of destiny and service to a higher ideal than that their own aspirations. They become icons and their influence is said to be idealized. For followers, they can do no wrong, a powerful responsibility to place on any human’s shoulders.

Political realities and chess playing

I have noted how political strategy has some things in common with a complex game of chess. The release of Aung San may be seen as a chess move by the military rulers in Burma. If we continue the chess-playing metaphor it follows their move a few weeks ago to hold elections. That move was widely dismissed as dubious gambit, offering a spurious promise of freedom. Tthe Generals will have assessed the situation subsequently. The gambit presumably was considered not to be working calling for another move.

The Telegraph analysed the situation:

The military regime which released Ms Suu Kyi is nonetheless confident it has control of the levers of power after the recent elections. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won and was founded by Thein Sein, who resigned as a general to become prime minister. The only credible opposition, Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was split by the poll. Elements of the party disagreed with her call to boycott the election and split off to form the National Democratic Force (NDF). But NDF leaders have said they would join forces with the NLD if Ms Suu Kyi was released. Her stated willingness to work with all democrats seems likely to heal any rift.

One of the greatest obstacles to Ms Suu Kyi – an ethnic Burman – building an effective opposition, inside or outside the system, could be the ethnic minorities that make up 40 per cent of Burma’s population. There is a widespread assumption across Burma that the military will take the opportunity, now that the elections are out of the way, to crackdown on the troublesome ethnic minorities. That might leave Ms Suu Kyi in an uncomfortable position as she tries to build bridges with the military regime yet not anger groups already antagonistic towards her.

Power Plays

Too direct a confrontation may produce yet another return to house arrest and her removal from direct political influence. Yet the power is not completely with the ruling Generals. To continue the chess metaphor, the release move was made not because the Generals wanted to do it at this moment in time. Rather it was a forced move, made because it had become the least-worse next step. It may well also be the first move towards an endgame promising a more democratic system in the country.

Are leaders and followers driven by biologically-ancient structures?

December 17, 2008

Humans still reveal their animal heritage

Humans still reveal their animal heritage

A recent article takes an evolutionary psychology approach to explaining leadership. The authors propose that modern human behaviors are fundamentally influenced by ancient evolutionary principles. The claims have considerable appeal in light of everyday experiences, but do they stand up to more careful scrutiny?

The article, in American Psychologist, has captured the attention of organisational theorists such as Bob Sutton.

The study, Leadership, Followship and Evolution: Some Lessons from the past suggests that theories of leadership have paid insufficient attention to followers.

A wide-range theory requires wide-range questions

The authors draw on evidence going back millions of years, while raising important questions for contemporary times:

Why are there followers as well as leaders? How might modern organizational structures contribute to poor perceived quality of working life for many people? How might ‘selfless’ social behaviors be explained? And as well as these contemporary issues, they throw in an evolutionary question: How did leadership promote survival among our ancestors?

Hint to students of leadership

Any student of leadership would be advised to pause here and decide what sense you make of these questions. There are no straightforward answers. Conventional wisdom has struggled with an answer to the question on followership. We no longer accept that you either have ‘the right stuff’ or you don’t, to be a leader . The evidence (cited in this paper) is that leaders can not be identified solely on genetic attributes. Followers may be ‘leaders in waiting’ some of whom will seize opportunities as circumstances change.

The evolutionary case

What is the evolutionary case for explaining leadership? Van Vugt and colleagues assemble an eclectic range of materials from biological and sociological studies. Some of it is now familiar through the popularizing of pioneering work (Richard Dawkins, for example, was a research student of the much revered Niko Tinbergen). The authors assemble a natural history of leadership with four stages.

All ‘Pre-human’ leadership (ca 2.5 million years and beyond) is classed in stage one involving ‘situational or dominance’ hierarchies.

Stage two sees the arrival of humanoid species 2.5 million years, ago, and persisting until relatively recently (around 13,000 years ago). This is the so-called era of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA) in which hunter-gather cultures developed, with the ‘Big Man’ or head man who led by consensus and trust.

‘Dominance hierarchies are the norm in [earlier primate groups]; for early humans collaboration among subordinates reversed this dominance hierarchy and resulted in a dominant democratic style that may have existed for nearly 2.5 million years’ [p188].

The greater proportion of the time span of Homo Sapiens is located in stage 2.

Stage 3 is where the so-called agricultural revolution occurred, since the last ice age . The analysis is rather critical of the course of evolution in stage three, suggesting that leaders gain more power over followers:

‘The payoff for leadership increased substantially .. attracting shrewd resourceful individuals to those positions for selfish reasons.. a substantial proportion of modern humanity .. still live under these oppressive conditions [p189]’.

Finally (for the moment, anyway), there is Stage 4, seen as emerging at the time of the industrial revolution, around two and a half centuries ago.

The authors consider that Stage 4 has brought enormous individual and social gains, while having some less pleasant side-effects.

‘..[E]mployees are relatively free from the predations of their leaders ..[But] in the early stages ..workers were almost slaves. Class warfare [still occurs but is moderated compared to regions still dominated by warlords]’

Evolutionary psychology is a positive science

This article presents a coherent view of human development. It takes the positive view of the ascent of man in the spirit of the enlightenment. Evolutionary development has resulted in advancement of groups with more complex social structures in line with (partly humanly initiated) new and more complex environmental structures such as organizations, cities, states, etc).

Cultural theorists as well as many lay people will take issue in the classification of contemporary cultures, with its assertion that much of the world is still ‘on the way towards’ the superior conditions of the fully-actualized stage 4.

The Mismatch phenomenon

The analysis is not one which ignores the weaknesses of many contemporary business and political leaders. It acknowledges misgivings on the nature and quality of modern working life.

Our evolutionary legacy results in behaviors which reveal our ancestral links. We are still capable as leaders and followers of reacting as Stage one creatures according to nature, nurture, and specific circumstances.

Our biological legacy influences our modern behaviors, This produces a mismatch between the demands of modern societies, and more primitive impulses. The concept offers an explanation of dysfunctional leadership in our times, suggesting such leaders cope in the short-term, with the expectation of replacement through survival of the fittest (genes?) in the longer term.

Leaders we deserve [Oct 2007] took an evolutionary perspective in examining leadership behaviors, arriving at a more cautious conclusion that an evolutionary perspective helps explore the meanings we bring to leadership across the animal world, rather than provide a unifying framework.

Footnote illustrating the mismatch concept

Arecent biopic of Lehman’s leadership put it this way

To say he was surrounded with a cult of personality would be an understatement. He was the textbook example of the “command-and-control CEO”. More than that, to many employees and to the outside world, he was Lehman Brothers – his character inextricably intertwined with the firm’s. Fuld inspired great loyalty and, on occasion, great fear. Those closest to him slaved like courtiers to a medieval monarch, second-guessing his moods and predilections, fretting over minute details of his schedule down to the flower arrangements and insulating him from trouble – from almost anything he might not want to hear.
Fuld had become insulated from the day-to-day realities of the firm and had increasingly delegated operational authority to his number two, a long-standing associate named Joe Gregory.

If Dick was the king, Joe was Cardinal Richelieu. If something went wrong, you could be sure that Gregory would be on the telephone in a towering rage. Problematically, Joe Gregory was not a detail man or a risk manager. On the contrary, as Fuld was musing to outsiders about his worries concerning risk, Gregory was doing the precise opposite: actively urging divisional managers to place even more aggressive bets in surging asset markets such as the mortgage business and commercial real estate


A paper adding a relatively ignored perspective to studies of leadership and followership