What is the nature of leadership? This is the fundamental question we should ask when evaluating the leadership potential of the various Democrat and Republican candidates in the U.S. presidential race. Do we go for an alpha primate, a king of the jungle, a wise matriarch or a Queen Bee?  The media is quick to make comparisons between our political leaders and the leaders of the animal world. But is that useful? Can we find any clues of leadership by looking at the animal kingdom? and what does that tell us about ourselves?

To find out, we went on a scientific expedition to compare leadership in humans with non-humans. More specifically we compared leadership across 8 mammalian societies (from dolphins and meerkats to elephants and chimpanzees) with leadership in 8 small scale human societies (including hunter gatherers like the Ache from Paraguay and horticulturalists like the Pimbwe in Tanzania). “We” are a multidisciplinary research team of biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists. The result of our project, funded by NimBios, was recently published in the biology journal TREE.

How did we conduct the study?  

We scored the 16 human and nonhuman societies on key aspects of leadership and looked at five dimensions, in particular (a) distribution of leadership, (b) leadership emergence, (c) power, (d) payoffs, and (e) the generality of leadership. For instance, when leadership was distributed across all members of the group we gave a score of “1”, when there were a few individuals leading we scored a “3”’  but when leadership was conducted by a single individual we scored a “5.” This is what we did for each of the 16 societies in our sample on each of the 5 leadership dimensions.

What are the conclusions?

We found both similarities and differences in leadership in humans and nonhumans. One important conclusion is that leaders in human societies are not as powerful as they are in non-human animals. For instance, chimpanzee leaders use coercion to get their way, but this is not what we see in small scale human societies, they tend to use persuasion.

Another result is that the role of human leaders is more circumscribed and less general than in nonhumans. For instance, humans have separate leaders for hunting, warfare and peacekeeping but such role divisions are not as strong in other animals. This suggests that human societies are more complex than the societies of other mammals.

But there are also important similarities to note.  Leadership in both humans and nonhumans tend to be based on achievement rather than it being ascribed. For instance, older individuals often emerge as leaders (e.g, with elephants, the oldest female leads the troop), presumably because they have relevant knowledge and experience. Yet, there are exceptions:  among both the spotted hyena and the Nootka (a human tribe in the Canadian Pacific coast) leadership is heritable.  And, in human and nonhuman societies we find evidence for both selfish and servant leaders (when leaders are relatively worse off in payoffs than followers) and anything in between.  

By comparing leadership across the animal world we have discovered that maybe there is nothing unique about human leaders. More research is needed. For instance, we restricted ourselves to small scale human societies which tend to be more egalitarian than the modern societies (such as the U.S. or Europe) where leaders are often more powerful. Finally, we did not look at the variation in leadership within each society. It is possible that there are differences between groups in leadership style and that this could have consequences how well a group is doing. For example, some chimpanzee groups and human societies may have more authoritarian leaders than others but what is the consequence of this difference for the welfare of these groups? This is certainly something to consider for future research.

What we can say is that it is reasonable to compare leadership in humans and nonhumans. Why we choose to follow particular leaders, how they lead us, and how they benefit from leading us may not be so different from our distant cousins in the animal world. Please think about this when you see your political leaders operate in the media and decide who you want to follow, the alpha male, the queen bee or the wise owl.

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Smith, J. E., Gavrilets, S., Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Hooper, P. L., El Moulden, C., Nettle, D., Hauert, C., Hill, K., Perry, S., Pusey, A. E., Van Vugt, M., & Smith, E. A. (2015). Leadership in mammalian societies: Emergence, distribution, power, and pay-off. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

About the Author

Mark van Vugt, Ph.D.

Mark van Vugt, Ph.D., is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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