Are Leaders Really That Important? Probably Not

Leaders are not more or less important than others in a group.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

“Someone’s gotta be the leader, someone’s gotta be the follower.” 

That is how things are presented in our social world. Some people are in charge and some are not—and then it's the responsibility of the followers to listen to leaders. Followers are expected to take direction for the good of the group.

Leadership among groups is often illustrated by examples from the animal world. Birds and their group behavior is one common example. When you watch a group of birds flying about, there always seems to be a leader. In particular, when birds are flying in a “V-pattern,” there is usually one bird who stands out as the leader and is in the front of that formation.

Having leaders can often be disheartening when we think about groups we are in. Leaders are seen as being “in charge” and being the ones who make the final decisions. It can make the rest of us feel like we are somehow less important and that our opinions do not matter that much. This can be especially problematic if a leader “lets it all go to their head” and acts as if their opinion is really a whole lot more important than everyone else’s.

Difficulties in work, social groups, and even families can be much worse when you have “leaders” who give themselves too much credit for being in charge. Leaders can often misguide people when they trust their opinions too much and believe that because it is their idea (and since they are the leader), it must be correct.

An argument can certainly be made that our society has given too much strength to the word “leadership.” It is as if “leadership” is a quality that rises above all else and gives someone the ability to make decisions far surpassing the ability of others. As a result, leaders see themselves as having some sort of natural, innate ability to make decisions that others should follow. And many times, they expect that others should not only follow them but follow them without question.

I was thinking of this the other day when reading a book about bird behavior (Lederer, 2016). As I mentioned earlier, birds often look like they are all following a “leader” when they fly in groups. Seeing these large groups fly in unison can be impressive and make the ability of the “leader” seem more impressive in keeping all the birds flying in unison.

But one aspect of bird groups that is not always obvious is that the “leader” of a flock often changes. It is certainly the case that one bird is out ahead of the group. But it is not the case the lead bird is the same for the whole time the flock is in the air. That role changes based on who is more up to the challenge. This is often the bird who is tired and has a better flight velocity than the rest of the flock.

Bird flocks often look like they have one “leader,” but they actually do not. What they have is one member out in front who just happens to be better able to take on that role at the time. There is no inherent “leadership” quality that one bird has. In fact, taking on that role itself involves no particular qualities at all other than all factors being in the right place at the right time.

This is a good example of how, in the animal world, “leadership” is really just a matter of practicality. One or several members of the group just happen to have the abilities at any one time to guide the group and put the extra effort into taking the front position. This is not some sort of inherent quality that makes the individual “better,” but is just a set of skills that are needed by the group at a particular time.

Like with birds, “leaders” in animal groups often change. They may change as the group recognizes who is better able to take on the front role. Or they may change based on some sort of physical challenge. But even this second one is not a reflection of any sort of innate “leadership” quality. Being the lion who wins out on a challenge to the “king” does not necessarily reflect any ability to take charge of others. It is just a reflection of being stronger than others, an ability that is often necessary to take the front if the pride is challenged.  

When we talk about “leaders” in our own social world, it is often easy to see how limited they are. You do not have to look far to recognize that “leadership” is often hard to define and this may be because it is not really an ability describing any one person. What one person may have is the ability to delegate, make decisions, or recognize trends within the larger group that provide some sort of direction at any one time. This does not make them more important but just points to who many, if not most, in the group think should take the lead position at any one point.

This all shows how “leadership” is not a quality that should make any person stand out as more important. And it does not make anyone less important if they are not a “leader.” Being the boss, chairperson, or manager requires taking the lead for a while and helping to direct the group. But it does not make the person more important—just better at some practical steps that are needed by the group at one point in time.

And not being the “leader” does not make a person less important. We often talk about “worker bees” in the context of how hives work as if they are more expandable and less important than other bees. But that simply is not the case. Every individual bee has a responsibility with the hive and the whole hive would function noticeably worse if one of them were not there. 

Humans function in the same way. Every individual has a role and the whole social system becomes noticeably worse if anyone is not there. This is the same whether someone is designated the “leader,” “worker,” or something else. Roles like these are not more or less important—just different.

References

Lederer, R. (2016). Beaks, Bones and Bird Songs: How the Struggle for Survival has Shaped Birds and Their Behavior. Timber Press.