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Our Love-Hate Relations with Leaders May be Rooted in Our Primordial Past

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 2, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Our Stone Age ancestors, always struggling to escape predatory animals, dangerous humans, starvation and other perils, chose big, brawny, physically fearless leaders. One would expect Digital Age leadership choices to emphasize cognitive agility and social competence. So why do we still tend to pick tall, square-jawed males for so many leadership positions?

Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja think it's because there is a "mismatch" between the way we lead and follow today and the way our ancestors operated. Further, they suggest, leading and following are adaptive behaviors, and our current ambivalent attitude toward those who lead us is likely to be rooted in evolutionary biology. Their new book, Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow and why it matters, examines how leading and following have emerged over tens of thousands of years from primitive eras through modern cultures and the worlds of business, politics and religion.

"Where our forebears clustered in small groups on the African savannah, half the world's population now lives in cities," Ahuja writes in "The Natural Selection of Leaders," an article in NewScientist. "Where leadership was dispersed among the many, it is now concentrated in the hands of a political and corporate elite. Could this be why we feel disconnected from our leaders?"

Van Vugt, a professor of psychology at VU University Amsterdam, who studies group and organizational processes from an evolutionary and social psychological perspective, and Ahuja, a science writer, say that leaders in hunter-gatherer communities tended to be picked in a fluid, bottom-up way, and assigned by peers who recognized individuals with specifically needed skills. Domineering types who wanted to boss others orfoster their own interests, Ahuja writes in the article, were "more likely to be assassinated than obeyed." Van Bugt writes in an earlier NewScientist article that while there was little difference in status or wealth between leaders and followers in ancestral societies, average salaries for US CEOs are now 179 times that of their workers.

Tall politicians tend to win contests over shorter rivals, corporate chiefs are disproportionately tall, and children can often identify leaders by looking at pictures. The authors suggest leaders often owe their positions in part to an "ability to push a 'leader button' in the human psyche."

The good news, they suggest, is that insights from the past may help explain why some modern leadership practices work better than others: companies where workers participate in decision making tend to have better success and higher employee retention rates. Good bosses and politicians know the value of solidarity with the rank and file. Read more about the book and van Vugt's work here.

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