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Natural Born Followers

Would you betray your mother to please an evil dictator?

If you are bold enough, please try this. Stand still in a busy shopping street and stare at the sky. At some point someone will stop and follow your eye gaze. Soon others will stop what they are doing and look up at the sky too. Before you know it, you have unwittingly assembled a crowd, all looking at the clouds. Not only have you just recreated a classic social psychology experiment but you have also created your own cult of followers.

In all that is written about leadership what is often forgotten is that it starts with a follower.

Followership is the default setting in our brain and it begins when we are still in our nappies.

Within minutes of birth, babies start mimicking the facial expression of their mothers and from the age of about three months they will follow the mothers’ eye gaze. From about nine months on, children will look from the object that their mother is gazing at back to the mother to check that they are both looking at the same thing. Then from 14 months onwards they are able to direct the gaze of their mother to an object, for example by pointing, so that they are coordinating their activities.

The mother-infant relationship is therefore the first form of leadership-followership that we humans encounter, and it is a survival strategy.

The British psychiatrist John Bowlby argued that the mother-baby bond, reinforced by mimicry and gaze following is an evolutionary strategy on the baby’s part to enhance its survival since it is utterly dependent on a carer in its infancy and early childhood. When something goes wrong there, it can leave permanent emotional scars.

I was reminded of this when reading the tragic story of the North Korean young man, Shin In Guen, who is the first political prisoner born in a North Korean labor camp to escape and flee the country. He now lives in Southern California and is an ambassador to an international human rights group. Shin was born in Camp 14 to a mother and father prisoner with whom he could never develop a normal parent-child relationship. The prison guards were essentially his “parents” because he had to obey to their harsh rules like: “Anyone who steals or conceals any food will be shot immediately.” As a young boy he had to watch public beatings and executions in the camp.

When he found out that his mother and brother were planning to escape from the labor camp, he reported them to the authorities and in the presence of his father he had to watch his mother and brother being executed by the prison guards. Before the execution his mother scanned the crowd and found Shin but he refused to hold her gaze. As he watched his mother suffer, Shin thought that she deserved to die. When Shin was 23 he escaped from the camp himself and after a few years hiding in North Korea he fled across the border to China and later moved to the US. He still is coming to terms with his ordeal and in particularly his betrayal of his mum and brother.

So, followership is hardwired in the brain and, lucky for us, we usually follow the right sort of people, our parents. Yet this exceptional story shows that our hardwired tendencies to follow backfire when we are exposed to the wrong sorts of models, particularly in childhood.

This should not come as a surprise to biologists. The Nobel prize winning ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, already discovered that young geese are biologically programmed to follow the first object that moves when they hatch from the egg. For goslings this is usually the goose mother so that this innate decision rule generally works well. But Konrad Lorenz showed that when the goose mother is replaced by a human being they will follow too. The classic film shows Konrad Lorenz either on foot or in the water, leading a line of young geese dutifully following their “mother.”

So maybe we should not be surprised to find child soldiers in Uganda killing people in the name of their leader, Joseph Kony, or children weeping publicly at the death of a dictator , Kim Jong-Il. These children are behaving just like Lorenz’ goslings.