Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why it Matters

Glynis M. Breakwell is engaged but not converted by this social evolutionary analysis of leadership

January 20, 2011

I have never found evolutionary social psychology particularly appealing. It seems to me that its proponents take the remarkably sophisticated precepts of the Darwinian theory of evolution and extrapolate them to social behaviour in contemporary human beings in ways that rarely can be substantiated with evidence.

Occasionally, the speculations are insightful and, indeed, may even explain phenomena that are observed. However, in my opinion, there are usually competing explanations that are equally, if not more, persuasive. Please do not misunderstand me: I have no problem in accepting that we have been shaped physically and psychologically by evolutionary pressures. I just have problems in seeing how the general assertions that can be made about how the survival imperative had an impact on the development of the human psyche and societies can be translated into specific predictions about the way people will actually behave and think in complex modern organisations.

So I cannot claim to have been unbiased in my reading of this book. Here, Mark van Vugt, a psychologist, and Anjana Ahuja, a journalist, present what they call "evolutionary leadership theory". They sketch out why human societies needed leaders and how the slow process of evolution generated not only the capacity to lead but also the corollary capacity to follow.

This in itself is unproblematic. It becomes rather more tendentious when the argument slips into proposing that the characteristics that we seek in leaders now are those that we might have needed in primitive societies residing, as the authors put it, "on the savannah".

One of the key claims to novelty in this book is the introduction of the "mismatch hypothesis".

Basically this states that people feel uncomfortable in organisations that do not resemble the social groupings that they would have experienced in ancestral tribal communities. The authors assume that these communities were characterised by "a close-knit structure governed loosely by trusted elders, in which every member was valued for his or her unique contribution to group living and survival".

We may ignore for the moment that this may be a somewhat rosy picture of the lifestyle of our ancestors. The point that the authors make is that we would like such an arrangement and the mismatch between it and what we have creates a thirst for leaders that can reduce the mismatch and who "display physical and behavioural traits that our ancestors would have prized...(which is why we like tall, strong-jawed leaders)".

Of course, the mismatch hypothesis cannot be tested in any meaningful sense. We can certainly examine what we value in leaders now, but we cannot establish with any degree of certainty what people might have valued in leaders in prehistoric times.

The book is written in a very accessible style, and offers descriptions of leaders from a variety of different eras and cultures. It garners material and ideas about leadership processes from most of the social sciences and draws parallels from work on non-primate animals.

In making its case, it mingles the results of experimental studies with anthropological fieldwork and sociological surveys, and moves on to anecdotes and media reports of public reactions to momentous historical events.

It even offers the reader an appendix with a questionnaire that allows you to classify what sort of leader you are (there are six leader prototypes described: the warrior; the scout; the diplomat; the arbiter; the manager; and the teacher). The authors acknowledge that the existence of these six types of natural leader "remain a scholarly hunch". They also allow that someone might embody elements of each of these types of leader.

Van Vugt and Ahuja say that they set out to produce a book that was neither dry nor humourless. They succeeded. It failed to convert me to an evolutionary social psychologist, but it engaged me.

Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why it Matters

By Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja

Profile Books, 2pp, £12.99

ISBN 97818466835

Published 2 September 2010

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