Why leadership?

|Matt Offord

One of the questions people often do not ask is “Why leadership?” or “What is leadership for?”  It appears that the answer to this question is so obvious that the question almost never needs to be asked.  I have spent the last 15 or so years studying leadership but rarely have I heard leadership scholars ask “But why do we need leadership in the first place”.  In my experience businesses, too, never ask “Why does this person need leadership skills?” Leadership skills are a job requirement for practically all jobs above the lowest levels.  In fact businesses are traditionally built on a leadership hierarchy which determines the level of leadership as well as professional know how at each rank.  Beyond a certain rank leadership becomes the more important factor. Why? 
In 1840, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, philosopher Thomas Carlyle presented his “Great Man” series of lectures.  In these six lectures he described the qualities of the “Great Men”; heroic leaders who changed the course of history.  According to Carlyle followers have an almost spiritual need for heroic leadership.  The “Great Men” were semi-divine beings who could fulfil that need.  And all we needed to do was to follow them blindly and all would be well.  I can see the eyebrows of the reader shoot upwards at this point.  How many people today, or then, would follow a leader blindly?  The lecture series attracted criticism, most notably from Herbert Spencer, a fellow scholar, who found the whole thing a bit much.  Today the concept of “Great Man” leadership is acknowledged as a blind alley.  We acknowledge that leaders are diverse and cannot easily be defined by a short list of characteristics especially when that list basically just describes tall white men.  But despite that, the assumption that we actually need leaders has not gone away.  The problem now is that we are less sure about how leadership actually works.  But I will get to that later.  For now, let’s buck the trend and ask ourselves why?
When asked why we need leadership most people will say that leaders make decisions and coordinate group activity.  All social animals need leaders, we have always needed leaders.  This is actually not true.  There are many instances in nature of large groups without any consistently dominant individuals or obvious leadership.  Colonies of insects (ants for example) are capable of highly complex behaviour without any leadership at all.  The Queen Ant is not in charge of the colony, she simply lays eggs.  Meanwhile the rest of colony collaboratively forage for food, defend a territory, build and maintain the nest, bring up young and maintain (in some species) groups of aphids  which are farmed for their secretions known as honeydew.  That’s right, ants can farm.  There is no large or small scale coordination to achieve this.  Insects are a long way from humans though.  But we, humans, are also thought to have spent the majority of our existence in leaderless groups. 

Anthropologists who study the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups note not only an egalitarian ethos but a society determined to prevent the rise of assertive individuals by a number of so-called levelling techniques.  These are basically social weapons deployed against would-be leaders to ensure they do not get to big for their boots.  Starting with gossip, then ostracism, social distancing and finally execution.  These societies may be egalitarian but they are not utopian.  Jean Briggs, an anthropologist who studied the Utku people in Canada in the 1970s, observed an Utku attempting to give a church service as he had been taught to by a Christian Church organisation.  Every time he asked the congregation to stand, they remained sitting and when told to sit, they stood.  They simply refused to be told what to do.  We cannot know for sure but since post-agricultural society is a relatively new arrangement, it seems likely that for most of human existence we have lived in similar societies, cherishing autonomy and reviling leadership.
This raises some very interesting questions.  Where is the human need for leadership now?  Carlyle’s “Great Man” would have been likely ignored and left to fend for himself, or possibly assassinated by his own family had he lived in a small-scale society.   In  fact, Carlyle’s description of leadership does seem apt for the Industrial Age where society, more than ever, had self-organised into a status hierarchy and where leadership was defined by one’s position in that society.  Our nearest ancestors are the Chimpanzee and the Bonobo.  Whilst Chimps appear to live in dominance hierarchies defined by social rank, our other ancestor lives in groups where social rank has less meaning.  We ourselves appear to adopt leadership strategies according to our situation and not according to some need for an unchanging model of leadership. 
In fact, our ambivalence about leaders is not that surprising.  Far from a blind acceptance of leaders, moaning about politicians, for example, is a national pastime.  It is a very good example of social levelling using gossip seen everywhere in modern society.  Primatologist, Christopher Boehm suggests that humans are sceptical about  leadership because leaders often enjoy the perks of their status to the cost of their followers.  Who wants to give up their share so that a leader can enjoy preferential treatment?  It seems that we do need leaders after all since we are clearly capable of deposing them but most of the time, we do not.  So what do leaders do for us?
Scientists have looked at how leadership emerges in groups of animals with little or no difference between members.  For example Brent Eskridge, Elizabeth Valle and Ingo Schlupp took a group of capuchin monkeys where the individuals appeared to have no traits that marked them out as leaders or significantly different characteristics.  Writing for Plos One journal in 2015, they noticed that attempts to make group decisions by individuals led to success or failure.  Successful animals continued to make decisions until they experienced failure, gradually rising up the leadership ladder.  By applying their observations to computer simulations, they were able to show that tiny variations in certain personality traits could lead to the emergence of leaders.  So much for great men.  Writing for the same journal, also in 2015, Francesco Pugliese, Alberto Acerbi and Davide Marocco used robots in a foraging task to show that groups with leaders had more success than those who did not.  More skilled robots tended to be those who rose to leadership positions.
Anthropologist Joe Henrich has studied the way humans rise to influential positions by accumulating knowledge needed by potential followers to improve their chances of survival.  He coined the term “info-copying” to explain how these individuals could accumulate prestige rather than a physically dominant position in society.  Dominant individuals must maintain their rank with violence and guile because there are always challengers and in human society it seems you will be subject to social levelling.  Prestigious individuals, however, earn their influential position by trading their valuable skills and knowledge for prestige.  We have now arrived at a “why” for leadership.  Leadership is far from being a spiritual or emotional need for an unchanging and heroic individual with a divine right to rank and status.  It is in fact a trade-off, an opportunity to serve society in return for recognition of specific knowledge or coordination skills.  It is, in a sense, a privilege which can be bestowed or removed.  And it depends on the situation whether one has the right stuff to be a leader.  So historical leaders may not always be the best role models.

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