Virtually everyone agrees that in cultures all over the world, leadership is an important aspect of human social life. Virtually no one has any deep understanding of why this is true. I say that because science lacks a comprehensive theory of why human leader-follower relations evolved. And if we don’t understand the evolved function of the psychological mechanisms that enable leaders to lead and followers to follow, then we can’t know what these mechanisms were designed (by natural selection) to accomplish, or why leadership and followership exist at all.
That’s not to say that evolutionary psychology has ignored leadership. On the contrary, researchers such as psychologist Mark Van Vugt and colleagues [1,2] have illustrated very effectively how our understanding of leadership can be illuminated by considering its evolutionary origins. And now, Van Vugt and I have published a paper  in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that attempts to lay the foundations of a comprehensive evolutionary theory of leader-follower relations in humans: ‘The evolution of leader–follower reciprocity: the theory of service-for-prestige’ (click on the title to access it for free).
Our theory of leadership, which we call “service-for-prestige”, attempts to explain how in the evolutionary past, being a leader would have benefitted the “fitness” (survival and reproduction) of leaders, and being a follower would have benefitted the fitness of followers. We argue that much of leadership is a kind of reciprocity (related to other kinds of biological reciprocity such as reciprocal altruism  and indirect reciprocity ), whereby leaders provide collective benefits for followers in exchange for prestige that followers generate for leaders. The collective benefits provided for followers are fitness-enhancing things like group social status and access to resources, and prestige benefits the leader’s fitness by affording him/her access to all kinds of material, social, and sexual resources. We review evidence from anthropological studies of hunter-gatherer and tribal societies suggesting that in the environments of human evolution, leader-follower relations tended to involve mutually beneficial, service-for-prestige transactions of this sort.
However, regarding leader-follower relations as mutually beneficial exchange may seem a little too optimistic. If human leaders evolved to benefit followers, then why does leadership so often go so wrong? Why are human organizations and societies so frequently bedevilled by leaders who focus much more on exploiting, coercing, and even murdering their followers, as opposed to providing them with benefits? The service-for-prestige theory attempts to account for such “bad” leadership, in addition to the “good” (reciprocal) leadership described above. We argue that bad leadership becomes more likely in environments in which followers lose social power relative to leaders. When followers have less power to escape or depose a leader, then the leader has reduced incentives to provide benefits to followers. It’s costly for leaders to provide these benefits, but when their followers have high social power, they must pay these costs in order to defend their own high status. When their followers are socially weaker, however, leaders will more likely find that it is cheaper for them to defend their status by coercing and exploiting, rather than benefitting, their followers.
Bad leadership is common in modern businesses and governments; think of overly greedy bosses who care little for employee well-being, and ruthless dictators who brazenly exploit their own people and national wealth. But importantly, the prevalence of such leadership is greatly reduced in the small-scale, nomadic hunter-gathering societies that are most similar to those in which humans evolved. That’s because if leaders in these societies attempt to become too dominant or coercive, their followers can either overthrow them or else pack up and leave the group. As we point out in the paper, these methods of leader rejection are often more feasible for followers in small nomadic societies than for members of modern organizations and states. And many members of modern societies suffer a great deal as the result of their relative helplessness to reject terrible leaders.
We don’t claim that good leadership is more “natural” than bad leadership or vice versa; people are adapted for both reciprocal and exploitative leader-follower relations. However, reciprocity involves (by definition) the greater degree of mutual benefit, and represents the kind of leadership that people overwhelmingly prefer. By learning more about the evolutionary foundations of good and bad leadership, we will empower ourselves to encourage the good and abolish the bad.
1. Van Vugt, M., Hogan, R., and Kaiser, R. (2008). Leadership, followership, and evolution: some lessons from the past. Am. Psychol. 63, 182–196.
2. Van Vugt, M., and Ahuja, A. (2010). Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why it Matters. London: Profile Books.
3. Price ME and Van Vugt M (2014) The evolution of leader–follower reciprocity: the theory of service-for-prestige. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8: 363.
4. Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Q. Rev. Biol. 46, 35–57.
5. Alexander, R. A. (1979). Darwinism and Human Affairs. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Copyright Michael E. Price 2014. All rights reserved.