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New theory about leadership has important lessons for the modern world

Mark van Vugt, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent, has challenged traditional theories of leadership by announcing that ‘leadership is in our genes’.

Professor van Vugt’s theory, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, states that: leadership – whether it be political, business, sports or otherwise – is the product of human evolutionary history in which, for several million years, humans lived and worked together in small groups in order to survive (much like our primate cousins, the chimpanzee); and leadership helped our ancestors cope with the pressures of group life and enabled them to more successfully defend their group against other groups. Leadership thus played a crucial role in the success of humans, and is now deeply embedded in our genes; so much so that the human brain possesses a hardwired leadership ‘prototype’, a fixed idea of how a leader should behave and what they should look like, that is innate and difficult to change.

Professor van Vugt also argues that for millions of years there was no formal leadership in human groups. He says, ‘Essentially, it was the best hunter or the fiercest warrior that emerged as leader. In present times, we still evaluate leaders in that way. The most admired leaders are the ones that help us defeat an enemy group – leaders such as Winston Churchill – or unite a country like Elizabeth I or Nelson Mandela.

‘Furthermore, living for millions of years in small groups with close personal contacts between leaders and followers has ensured that what we are looking for in leadership is an intimate personal touch. Ideally we would like our leaders to know us personally and take an active interest in our lives. This, of course, is increasingly difficult in modern society in which leaders govern millions of people. Yet successful leaders are still the ones that make people feel special – charismatic leaders like Jesus or Gandhi are historical examples.’

He also finds that leaders who try to dominate followers are particularly disliked. In ancestral times, overbearing and selfish leaders were simply ignored, ridiculed or sometimes even killed. This egalitarian ethos is still visible in modern society in which political leaders often become the target of ridicule or hatred.

Professor van Vugt’s new evolutionary theory of leadership also helps to explain why humans have deeply rooted ‘follower’ instincts, and why we often choose the wrong kind of leaders. ‘The way we select our leaders now is very different from the way leaders emerged among early humans,’ he says. ‘Because we tend to ignore our evolutionary heritage, the rate of leadership failure is extremely high –for example, in the business world it is estimated to be around 65 percent.’

Gary Hughes | alfa
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