More tribal leaders required

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By Bob Bailly

Has evolution prepared humans to live in the world we have created? Was Desmond Morris correct when he pointed out that, “Man’s biological equipment is not strong enough to cope with the unbiological environment it has created?” Has our transition from hunter/gatherer living in a cave to cosmopolitan businessperson living in a luxury condo been as smooth as we’d like to think?

In my last post, I postulated that humans prefer to live and work in a tribal setting and promised to explore the nuance of this from a modern business perspective. Today’s focus will be on the role of leadership.

Leaders and leadership

So much has been written about leadership from a business perspective that there is a risk of being trite here. Still, I believe modern writing tends to nibble around the edges of what I believe are some core attributes of business leadership. We’ve been trained to analyze a leader’s management style, core competency and desirable traits by looking at human behaviour from a sometimes abstract and at times esoteric point of view based on the business sciences (economics, marketing, management, finance).

However, I am more inclined to look at leadership from a behavioural sciences perspective by considering what anthropologists, sociologists and neurobiologists bring to the debate. What can a more primitive, so to speak, look at leadership teach us?

Tribal leadership

A tribe could be defined as any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader and an idea. For millions of years, humans have been seeking out tribes, be they religious, ethnic, economic, political, or even social (think of Facebook). It’s our nature.

Leadership can be defined as the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. Put even more simply, a leader is the inspiration for, and director of, the action. He or she is the person in the group who possesses the combination of personality and skills that convinces others to want to follow his or her direction.

In business today, however, leadership is often welded to performance and often to an artificial hierarchy. Those who are viewed as effective leaders are those who increase their company’s bottom lines. But all too often, this performance overlooks the organization’s – or the tribe’s – role in shaping the end result.

In our hominid past around three million years ago, our early human ancestors and their tribes were nomadic hunter-gatherers. These groups were likely small – not much more than family or clan living and moving together. They certainly must have been reliant on each other for mutual aid, and to share and combine resources. Their growing brains were starting to be able to manipulate their environment for their mutual benefit. Although competition for leadership may have occurred, current thinking on the subject suggests that despotic behaviour was curtailed because these small groups, likely measured in dozens rather than hundreds, were for the most part egalitarian in nature. Fair, neutral and trustworthy leadership was expected, and likely demanded by tribal members.

How leaders arose

Living in groups has always required some form of social coordination, from finding and distributing necessary resources, making peace, making group decisions and dealing with enemies. Democracy was probably natural. Leaders were chosen or simply acknowledged by the group as leaders because they possessed superior skills and physical attributes – larger, quicker, smarter or more aggressive individuals who could be counted on to do what was best for the group’s survival. Dominant behaviour was probably accepted as long as the tribe was benefiting. Anthropological evidence suggests that this tribal model was so successful that pre-humans were able to survive for several million years. If under threat, aggressive leaders were likely chosen by the tribe, but being a follower had no built in disadvantage – living conditions for all members of the group were very similar, and other than prestige, leaders were living the same life as everyone else. Outrageous behaviour was discouraged or unacceptable.

Leaders arose because they had the implicit respect and acceptance from the tribe. Anjana Ahuja and Mark van Vugt suggest that this adaptive behaviour is also reflected in other species, from fish to birds to chimpanzees, because it gives a survival advantage. Their studies of more modern hunter-gatherer societies also show that gifted individuals are picked in a “bottom-up, not top-down, way. Leadership is fluid rather than fixed, and assigned by peers to whoever is recognized as being adept in a specific domain, from herbalism to hunting” (see Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership).

But about 7,000 years ago things began to change for most of mankind. Small, widely dispersed groups of wandering hunter/gatherers began to settle down in some key locations in the world as they achieved success in raising crops and domesticating animals. The shift had begun from smaller, family-based tribes where everyone knew everyone else, to impersonal villages, towns and cities where strangers began to outnumber tribe members.

With the growth of permanent settlements came the notion of private property and the roles of leaders changed forever. Chieftains, kings and lords arose and imposed customs, rules and regulations to reinforce their control of the property that “they owned.” The need to protect territory is probably hardwired into humans and is certainly observed in other primate species. But the effect of this social construct at that time meant that crowds became more dense, elites became more elite, and relationships became more impersonal. This in turn also fostered specialization of resources to include military and police to provide security for that property. Today, this so-called need for security eats away incredible and vast resources – worldwide expenditures for arms and weapons, for police and armies far outweigh capital invested in education or health, but I digress.

Many observers agree, this shift from a personal (everyone is known in the tribe) to an impersonal (city-based) society was and is causing the human animal its greatest agonies. As a species, we are not biologically equipped to cope with a mass of strangers masquerading as members of our tribe.

What can we do?

Today, we can still observe the ancient reverence we have for the tribal roles that produced leaders who were great hunters, warriors, mystics, healers and artisans. Only in our time, we have institutionalized hunters and warriors with designations such as politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, judges, military and police. Mystics have become institutionalized under many guises of clergy. Healers have become our doctors, teachers, and social service professionals. Our artisans include not only artists, but professional athletes and entertainers of all stripes.

But many leaders with these designations today unfortunately expect many more perks and power than our ancient ancestors did. And not only that, they expect to be recognized with compensation for their prowess and effort that far outstrips their other tribe members.

So today’s reality is that despite the merits of the many professionals involved in these practices, we are often locked into some bad practices. Consider grossly overcompensated CEOs and management groups. Consider managers chosen by their boss rather than by their peers. Consider politicians who reward loyalty over good sense … you get the picture.

I believe that what we’re missing is the more natural leadership that arises from the bottom up, but I actually believe we are seeing some signs of its revival.

Someone once noted that the Beatles did not invent teenagers, they merely decided to lead them. Revolutions start when a “someone” looks at the status quo, decides they don’t like it, and then finds a disaffected group to join.

The Internet has eliminated the barriers of geography, cost, and time to find and join a group. Blogs and social networking sites are helping existing tribes get bigger. But more importantly, they’re enabling countless new tribes to be born – groups of 10, or 10,000, or 10 million who care about their favourite actress, or political candidate, or new ways to fight global warming or a pipeline. The Occupy Wall Street protests are a great example of this – organized by and through the Internet but performed on the ground using grassroots democracy. Unfortunately for them, no charismatic leaders have yet to appear to provide a face and direction for this tribal frustration.

And so the key question: Who should lead us?

The Web can do amazing things, but it can’t provide leadership. That still has to come from individuals, people probably just like you who have a passion about something. The explosion in tribes means that anyone who wants to make a difference now has the tools at their fingertips.

If you think leadership is for other people, think again. The tribe will judge your suitability.

And one final thought to consider, leaders don’t need everyone, but they must recognize they can’t do it by themselves. I think it was Seth Godin who once said: “Jesus needed his disciples as much as his disciples needed him.”

So my advice to you is find your tribe, figure out your role and choose your leader wisely.

Image: The BBQ Smoker Site

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