download“Evolutionary leadership theory provides an answer to why modern leadership often fails, by suggesting that there is likely a mismatch between our evolved leadership psychology and the challenges of modern environments” (Van Vugt, 2012, p.166).

1) Leadership emerged in prehuman species (e.g. foraging patterns of insects, swimming patterns of schools of fish, flying pattern of migrating birds) as a mechanism to solve simple group coordination problems, with a simple decision rule “follow the one who moves first”. The individual moving first then automatically emerges as the leader (Van Vught, 2012).

2)  Five million to 13.000 years ago humans lived in seminomadic hunter-gatherer bands and clans consisting of from 100 to 150 closely related individuals (Dunbar, 2004). There were no resource surpluses, leading to fairly egalitarian societies, with no formal recognized leaders. Leadership was flexible and, depending on conditions, different leaders emerged – for instance, the best hunter leads the hunting party, the wisest elder resolves internal conflicts, the fiercest warrior leads the fight (Van Vugt et al., 2008). In a bureaucracy one individual is responsible for all these functions. We are just not adapted to take on so many different formal leadership roles, which may account for the high failure rate of senior managers (50 to 60%, Hogan & Kaiser, 2005). (Van Vugt, 2012).

Hence, it is unlikely that our evolved leadership psychology has changed since the agricultural period, but our social structures have and that could lead to a mismatch.

3) Chiefdoms, kingdoms, warlord societies with their centralized hierarchical leadership emerged after the agricultural revolution as a result of surplus resources. They had to redistribute them. And they needed extra formal power to deal with the stronger within-and between group conflicts in increasingly larger groups. (Van Vugt, 2012). Today, however, many organizations do not have a surplus in resources. Some do, however, and are also extremely large which is reflected in the payoff differences (average salaries for CEOs are almost 200 times the average pay for workers) that lead to increases for potential abuse (Kipnis, 1972), and decreases the ability to empathize with subordinates (Galinsky et al., 2006), which encourages a kind of management that employees naturally resist.

4) Selection: in ancestral times leaders emerged from the group bottom-up through their skill, personality, or ambition. Today leaders are appointed by managers senior to them in organizational hierarchy. Pleasing superiors is more important to career success than pleasing subordinates, and this is at odds with our evolved leadership psychology.

5) Knowing that female leaders were the peacekeepers in ancestral environments (Van Vugt & Spisak, 2008) and are today more democratic (Eagly & Carli, 2003), it must be seen how beneficial the bias toward male leadership is in organizations that increasingly emphasize interpersonal skills and network building.

Moreover, we have evolved a follower psychology which includes decision rules to avoid being dominated and exploited when we follow a leader.

6) We accept and endorse authority only in areas where leaders have proven expertise. Individuals may not want to follow anyone when they face a relatively evolutionary new problem or a simple coordination problem. Both of which many organizations face today.  Exercising leadership outside these adaptive problem domains could even undermine team performance. For instance, highly cohesive groups do less well in performing a routine task with a formally appointed leader (Haslam et al., 1998).

7) We ridicule and gossip through language those in powerful positions and hold them under public scrutiny.

8) Shunning exploitative leaders is also a powerful tool to level relationships.

9) We can abandon those leaders. Attrition rates in autocratically led groups are four times greater than in democratically led groups (Van Vugt et al., 2004). Citizens of states and employees in organizations are relatively free today from the predations of their leaders and may defect to other states or organizations. This freedom shift the balance of power away from leaders and produces conditions, more akin, but not equivalent, to the reverse dominace hierarchy of the ancestral period.

10)  And euh…we can kill to avoid exploitation. In the US, disgruntled citizens have attempted to assassinate 15 of 43 presidents, making it one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Stated different, modern bureaucratic arrangement and their hierarchical leaders are less and less making business sense, and are constrained by our evolved leadership psychology.

Any comments?



All references and almost all content come from the following very interesting chapter

Van Vugt, M. (2012). The nature in leadership: evolutionary, biological, and social Neuroscience perspectives (pp. 141-175). In Day, D. & Antonakis, J. (Eds.). The nature of leadership. Second edition. Sage: Los Angeles.

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