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?
Humans still reveal their animal heritage
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