Events such as the tragic situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi leads us to ask, why do people lead in the first place, and correspondingly, why do people follow them? Given that there is nothing in today’s society to preclude anyone from a successful lifestyle living and operating essentially alone, it is hard not to question why leaders and followers are so prevalent.
Evolutionary leadership theory (ELT) was developed by Mark van Vugt, a psychologist and professor at VU University Amsterdam. For the first time, the “whys” of leadership are addressed using evolutionary psychology as a cornerstone. Specifically, since humans are evolutionarily adapted to live in groups (living alone didn’t fare well when hunting and gathering was the survival method), and since groups with effective leaders do so much better than groups without leaders, it follows that leadership and followership became prerequisites for reproductive success (which is the only kind of success that matters evolution-wise).
Likewise, groups without effective leaders simply did not succeed as well as others and died out. Therefore, all of us today carry the psychological legacy of being programmed to live in led groups and, most of the time, be obedient group members. We crave a sense of belonging, and if we don’t find it within our own families, we will seek out other organizations, such as cults, gangs, clubs, companies, or religions which can offer it.
Led followers also became wired to at least identify effective leadership, even if they did not themselves “choose” not to lead. Why? Because, as we’ll see in later posts, the most effective groups arise from group selected (as compared to self selected) leaders. In other words, groups that chose well in the area of choosing leaders fared better than groups that chose poor leaders. To this day, groups that chose better leaders live better and consequently, individuals who have a choice in which group to belong do better by choosing a group with an effective leader as the primary deciding factor. Reading this blog and not interested in being a leader? Keep reading anyway – because it pays to be able to identify effective leaders with which to associate either as a follower or as a partner.
So, the reason people want to rule is the same reason all societies want a ruler: It is the natural order of things. In a society favoring groups, there is no market for followers if there is not a leader. The compelling need for a leader, often any leader, is the only way to account for many of the rulers who have emerged recently. Leadership and followership have become a part of human nature. Leadership and followership evolved to help our ancestors solve problems of social coordination that group living presented, such as foraging for enough food to eat and finding somewhere safe to sleep.
A basic premise of ELT is that at the dawn of human history, in the hostile environment of the African savannah, there was safety in numbers. Individuals who possessed the cognitive capacity for followership thrived better than those lacking it. “Cognitive capacity” in this context means a set of inbuilt ‘if-then’ rules that pushed us to follow a person, or group, when needed. This followership brain enabled our ancestors to make quick automatic decisions about whom to follow in certain situations. Hungry – follow the best hunter or gatherer. Cold? Follow that fellow with the best shelter skills. Strike out on your own? Well, they you had to be damned good at everything. The followership trait thus spread through the generations, as herd-shunning individuals died out.
In effect, evolution has fixed the capacity for followership – and the recognition of leadership potential – into our brains. Studies show that groups can identify and fall into line behind a leader in as little as 25 seconds. The chosen one generally will usually have some special expertise that will help the group, making him an appropriate focal point for followership (or he’ll be the loudest, and we’ll see later why good talkers are able to command leadership positions). The naturalness with which leader-follower relations spontaneously emerge within groups of people suggests it is an adaptation. In other words, it is a behavior that has become instinctive over the course of human evolution, owing to the immense reproductive benefit it afforded our ancestors.
People who influence others to achieve a common goal can be found in every corner of human existence: the schoolchild who seems to set the playground agenda; the manager who motivates his team; the exasperated customer who starts a mutiny; the friend who seems to end up as architect of your life. All lead in the sense of persuading others to assist in the accomplishment of a shared objective.
Typically, the shared objective is the leader’s objective. So becoming a leader is a good way of achieving whatever it is you want to achieve Not only that, but leaders reap benefits, both financial (top executives nearly always get paid more than middle-ranking ones) and sexual, because (generally male) leaders appear to get their pick of (female) followers, as is the case in nearly all animal societies. They also enjoy elevated social status. This triumvirate of factors drives power-seeking behavior, because they enhance the reproductive potential of the (usually) men who pursue them. And reproductive success is the core of evolutionary psychology. Our evolutionary purpose is not to procreate for our own benefit, but rather to procreate for the benefit of our genes.
Great leaders, from popes to presidents to CEOs, have a long history of polygamy and infidelity. In fact, the three S’s have a clear relationship to each other, and to ELT: the ultimate evolutionary aim is reproductive success, which must be achieved through sex, which means catching the eye of sexual partners, which means being a man of status. And how is status signified today? Through salary and wealth. And so, thanks to evolutionary leadership theory, we have a thread linking money to power to sex.