Horse Leadership

Gavin Watson

I have been reading Mismatch by Ronald Giphart and Mark van Vugt. The following are some ideas I gleaned from the section about the mismatch in the work environment. The book is about the mismatch between the environment in which we were “designed” by evolution and the environment in which we now live and work.

We can learn something valuable from horses. They have a different system of leadership than we use in our corporations.

Within herds of horses the leader is a mare. She is the leader because the other horses choose to follow her. They select her to lead them because she is the best at looking after the others. She is the best at keeping the group healthy. She does not take leadership it is given to her by the other horses.

Here is the way they define leadership: “Leadership is a process of social influencing, whereby a leader coordinates the activities of one or more followers.”

There is a stallion also. He does not lead he follows. He guards the back of the herd and protects it from predators.

Gorillas establish “leadership” based on who is strongest. The strongest male gets all of the females. This is of course not real leadership according to the definition above. It is just dominance.

Chimpanzees will have none of that. If one male chimpanzee is too dominant and taking advantage of things for his own interest several other male chimpanzees will gang up on him and put an end to it. This keeps dominance in check.

For humans group survival is the key to passing along our genes. (the goal of evolution our ‘designer’ is gene replication) Human cooperation is our main survival mechanism. Anything that gets in the way of cooperation (like aggressive and dominant individuals) needs to be eradicated. In our ancestral environments the followers selected the leader(s). We did not have just one leader who led all the time. Leadership was fluid. Who was leading us depended on what was needed at that moment. The one most suited for that need took the lead.

Our current corporate structures do not allow for this flexibility. We do not select who will lead us. Leadership does not easily change when the situation changes. In addition, because managers are often “leading” from positional authority rather than being selected by their followers, their followers can not easily get rid of them when they begin to behave in ways that are in their own interests instead of the interests of the group.

We could learn something from horses and our human ancestors. Two different species evolved similar solutions that work.

Gavin Watson

As of January 2020, Gavin Watson began serving as Board Chair of Conscious Capitalism, Connecticut Chapter. View Gavin’s LinkedIn profile here: