This is the same book I reviewed last week. Last week’s review was about ancient human societies, and the contrast with our modern work culture. It was about the autonomy and egalitarian systems we crave that will also lead to high performing workplaces. This book also has a lot to say about leadership, much of which is especially applicable to our times, so I wanted to cover the subject of leadership separately.
“In humans, leadership is a little more widely spread than in other animal species. Someone would take the lead on the savannah in the limited arena in which his talent was able to flourish…amongst our ancestors the followers fundamentally created the leader.” Mark van Vugt and Ronald Giphart, Mismatch
Or, as Simon Sinek puts it: “To be a leader means one thing and one thing only. It means that you have followers.”
If you are a leader your ‘power’ was given to you by the people you are leading. They are letting you lead because they trust that you will care for them above only yourself. That is a sacred responsibility that should not be violated.
In our ancient ancestors’ time, leadership was fluid; it depended on what needed doing. Leadership was not hereditary or a full time job. A leader was a person with a good plan and the ability to engage others and make it happen.
If Pete suggested going out on a hunt even though Pete had never come home with as much as a Bunyoro rabbit, all the men would carry on lazing under the trees. But if Jack who was extremely proficient at catching wildebeest proposed a walk, everyone would definitely follow.
Leadership can have a dark side.
“I worry that business leaders are more interested in material gain than they are in having the patience to build up a strong organization, and a strong organization starts with caring for their people.” – John Wooden
Unfortunately some individuals will abuse leadership (the power that the people give them) to take advantage of the group.
We want transformational leaders who have the good of the group as their focus and who will self-sacrifice for their group. We don’t want transactional leaders or narcissistic or sociopathic leaders. Cooperation, high performing groups, fulfilled people, and dominance don’t go together.
What to do about a bad leader?
Ultimately the responsibility for bad leaders lies in our followership.
“Cooperating in a group context is more effective when aggressive or dominant types are ejected or when the group takes them down a peg or two. No one individual is stronger than the group.” Ronald Giphart and Mark van Vugt, Mismatch
Being expelled from the group 50,000 years ago meant certain death. Our ancestors had ‘STOP’ strategies: Strategies To Overcome the Powerful. They used gossip, had minimal hierarchy and used humor, ridicule, and shunning. If none of that worked, then the death sentence by expulsion from the group was meted out. That was an effective strategy for ridding the group of a narcissistic or sociopathic person trying to take control.
Our current organizations and governments are lacking effective STOPs. Sometimes our organizations even institute rules against essential STOP tactics like gossiping. We need to put effective STOPs in place. We could encourage the gossiping around the water cooler that used to happen around the campfire in the evening. Leaders used to be chosen by their followers. In our ancestral groups you were a leader because your followers chose you. We could still do that in our companies and even review our company leaders with the authority to replace them if they are not serving the group. As in ancestral times, we could pass leadership around as something that is situationally dependent. Whoever is best at leading the project at hand takes the lead. This allows for more variations and selection and if the results are good, repetition in the future. In this way, the better leaders for particular circumstances will emerge from the group.
Unfortunately, as in so much of our business practices, there is a Mismatch in our human evolutionary design and our corporate leadership systems and in our political leadership systems.
If the shareholders choose the leadership for a company through the board of directors, there is a risk that they might choose the wrong type of person for the job. Parachuting in an MBA from outside is rarely a good choice for leadership of a company. Natural leaders should be allowed to emerge from within. When a CEO is chosen who primarily cares about the stock price and their bonus, there is not much the employees can do about it except vote with their feet. There is a good argument for the employees to choose their leaders at their working group level and, even at the top of the company.
In our politics there are real issues. We have been designed to exist in groups of up to 150 people. At this size we either know each other directly or we know someone who knows that other person and we can find out about their reputation by asking our friends.
A great number of us are prone to following self serving leaders who enhance themselves to appear strong. When we are fearful (and sometimes bad “leaders” deliberately create fake stuff to be fearful of or deliberately amp it up) we want someone who sounds confident, and if it is a complex issue we may elect them to take care of it for us.
We have different personalities, psychologically we are not all built the same. We tend to one end of a given spectrum or the other.
Liberals and conservatives, for instance, care about the issue of fairness but see fairness in a different way, through a different lens. Some ask; am I, and is my group, getting our fair share? Others ask, is that disadvantaged person being treated fairly? We are all compassionate but feel compassion differently. Compassion can be group-related. Who is my group? Is it my family? My friends, My church? My religion? My company? My fellow sports team fans? My political party? My country? Or am I a global citizen with global responsibilities?
In our ancestors’ times it was good to have people who cared about strangers outside our group. People who felt compassion and offered sustenance to outsiders. We see that in the generosity of groups who do not have much but willingly share what little they have with total strangers. It was also good to have people within our group considering how that would put an additional strain on our group’s resources. A strong in group bias. We still have this range of personality types living among us. A good leader needs both.
How I participate in leadership is linked to a large degree in how we are hardwired. Am I one who wants to lead? Do I prefer to stay in the background? Am I a good follower? Do I pledge allegiance to a flag? Do I respect authority? or do I question authority? Keep in mind, I am wired a certain way, and so are you.
The question to ask ourselves is what level is the leader operating on? Is he putting himself before everyone else in the group? Is he putting himself and his friends before everyone else in the group? Or is he putting the group ahead of himself? If he is putting himself and or his friends ahead of everyone else then he is clearly not the person we want leading us. As soon as things go wrong he will be blaming everyone else instead of helping to solve the problem. A good leader who cares about the group over himself would be apologizing for what went wrong and offering to step down and let someone else with a better idea give it a try. That is not weakness, that is putting the good of the group first.
If our leader is putting the group ahead of herself and her friends, that’s great. Then we need to ask a follow up question which is; what level of group is she putting ahead of what other group(s)? Is she putting our group ahead of the other groups? Or is she putting everyone in every group’s best interest ahead of her own and our group’s self interest?
It is important not to be just a leader for your own group. After all, Hitler’s power came from the belief in the idea that Germany needed to come first.
To the extent that humanity not only survives but prospers for the next thousand years, it will be because we and our leaders put the greater interest of all of us and our planet (on which we and all future generations depend) ahead of our short term, personal, and national interests.
We are a global collaborative system of groups of groups within groups, living on a finite planet. Just like any stakeholder system if a group treats other groups unfairly and takes more than their share, the system is going to collapse. We followers need to be choosing leaders who understand this and we need to be willing to make personal sacrifices for our global group of humanity.
This pandemic is a trial run of our ability to put global human interests ahead of our personal, local, political, and national group interests. So far I am not impressed. Hopefully we are beginning to learn the lesson. How this pandemic continues to unfold over the next decade depends on learning the global citizen lesson. The pandemic will keep teaching us about global citizenship through viral variants until we learn it. As the followers who give our leaders power to act for us, we are responsible for behaving (and voting) like global citizens.
Cheers for Friday!
Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter