The imperatives of leaders, leadership and leading

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By Bob Bailly

“Men make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

Harry S Truman, 33rd president of United States (1884 – 1972)

Over the last several months Canadians have watched the eldest son of Pierre Trudeau move from the fringes of the Liberal Party to become its newly elected leader. After he garnered 80 per cent of the first ballot votes at the party convention last weekend, Justin Trudeau has finally been able to overcome the disdain of his opponents and the media. But as journalist Michael Den Tandt observes, “the latter will not last – unless Trudeau proves to be as effective a leader as he is a campaigner.”

But what constitutes an effective leader?

“Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”

Peter Drucker

No other topic in modern business literature dominates as much as leadership. As historian and political scientist James M. Burns wrote, “leadership is one of the most observed, yet least understood phenomena on earth.” Not only is leadership a universal human trait, it is also observed throughout the animal kingdom. Even guppies have been observed to have dominant individuals that “lead” others to new resources.

Over the last several years I have spent considerable time researching and teaching about the evolutionary social and organizational sciences. My particular interests lie in the fields of neuroscience, anthropology and evolutionary psychology to see how evolutionary thinking can be usefully applied to understand modern business behaviour.

From these studies I’ve come to believe that no overarching theory encompasses the natural, biological and social sciences even though all have something interesting to say about leadership. For instance, anthropologists, biologists, neuroscientists, economists, political scientists, primatologists, psychologists and zoologists have been studying various aspects of leadership emergence, yet so far there has been very little cross-fertilization between these disciplines in developing models and theories of leadership that are consistent with each other.

However, I have learned a lot from researchers like Mark van Vugt, who believed that by incorporating evolutionary theory, these disparate disciplines might shed some light on issues of leadership and group dynamics. Van Vugt broadly defines leadership as “a process of influence to achieve coordination between individuals for the pursuit of mutual goals.” Using Darwinian principles, he argues that leadership and followership may be psychological adaptations – or evolved mechanisms – for solving these coordination problems between individuals. He calls this line of thinking “Evolutionary Leadership Theory.”

At the heart of his argument is that humans are highly social animals, and one of the advantages big brains gave our species is the ability to solve some of the social dilemmas our social behaviour demands, such as finding and distributing resources, group decision making, making peace and dealing with enemies. Adaptation strategies to allow humans to survive and thrive in large complex groups would be selected over those that didn’t.

“To reap the benefits and avoid the costs of increasingly large and complex social networks, a host of psychological adaptations likely evolved,” van Vugt wrote. “Some of these are uniquely human such as the capacity for language and religion. Other traits got co-opted and served new purposes such as the capacity for intelligence, laughter, culture and perhaps leadership.”

So what roles were leaders required for? And how does a person like Justin Trudeau represent these characteristics in our modern world?

Effective leaders clarify the path to help their followers get from where they are to where they want to be and make the journey easier by removing roadblocks.

First and foremost, our hunter/gatherer ancestors moved a lot, so one of the earliest leadership roles necessary for all of our ancestors was deciding where to go. As simple as this sounds, if a group is to maximize its opportunities it must decide where, when and how to move forward. By default, humans, like almost all animals, will follow one of their own deemed best equipped to determine an advantageous path to take. With 80 per cent first ballot support, Liberals seems convinced that Trudeau knows the right way forward for them.

Effective leaders are adept at conflict management.

Living in large groups creates its own kinds of problems, not the least of which is conflict between individuals. Think of two brothers or two sisters getting along all of the time. It doesn’t always happen. Hunter/gatherers must have had social conflict as well, so the ability to broker or force peace would have been positive for the group. At the Liberal convention this weekend, both Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were present, seemingly healing an “ancient, corrosive blood feud between the two giants of the ‘90s.”

In today’s world, modern managers can and likely should expect to spend a great deal of time in conflict resolution, and should never be surprised by the in-group dynamics of running any business or service.

Leaders play a role in coordinating group activities to defeat other groups.

While peace within the group is crucial, another adaptive pressure facing our species would be to deal with other groups, or enemies. In previous blogs I’ve examined the notion of “them and us,” and modern business leaders certainly wouldn’t take too much convincing that exploiting this trait is essential to business success. Still, it’s useful to remind ourselves of the evolutionary underpinning of this human leadership trait.

Of equal importance is the ability to know when and how to negotiate, to forge alliances or to be diplomatic when necessary. Modern leadership continuously wrestles with the strategies of “war and peace,” with marketing warfare between brands on one hand and mergers and acquisitions on the other. Justin Trudeau’s political leadership obviously requires the same skills and he will be measured accordingly.

Leaders play a role in how to share resources.

Determining how to allocate scarce resources effectively and fairly also requires an ability to lead and avoid conflicts that naturally would arise. For instance, if a large animal is successfully killed, who decides how the meat is shared to the benefit of the group?

Group dynamics being what they were in small groups, it’s generally assumed that distributions were relatively equal. From an evolutionary leadership theory, good leaders would be adept at allocating scarce resources.

Today, however, as a species we seem to have forgotten this evolutionary imperative. But whether incremental or accelerated, modern business and political leaders often feel entitled to leadership perks. And distributing perks to loyalists becomes a juggling act of the highest order.

Additionally, today’s business and political elite are not only accustomed to the concept of highly disproportionate payoffs, many modern leaders even feel entitled to high pay and perks even when their initiatives fail. Time will tell if this is useful for our business evolution, but somehow I think not.

Leaders recognize other people’s roles and contributions to the well being of the group.

It’s probably not too far a stretch to say that from a biological, cultural and evolutionary perspective, individuals have an inborn instinct to defend three things: themselves, their families and their tribes. However, we now belong to many specialty tribes at the same time, be it a political party, a team, a congregation or a host of business or social groups. In other words, we can observe throughout history a greater and greater tendency toward fragmentation, specialization and bureaucracy, and we now recognize that leaders can take many forms and be supported in many different ways.

As Van Vugt writes: “In sum, evolutionary leadership theory assumes that leadership evolved as solutions to distinct coordination problems involving group movement for foraging (scouts), policing in groups (peacekeepers), organizing attacks against out-groups (war leaders), establishing peaceful alliances with other groups (diplomats), managing the group resources (managers), and socializing newcomers into productive and loyal group members (teachers).”

How well Justin Trudeau is able to negotiate this evolutionary imperative will likely determine his and the Liberal party’s political survival.

Image: Internet Monk

Bob Bailly is a Calgary-based neuro-marketing and tribal marketing practitioner, teacher and coach.


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