Thursday, September 27, 2012

What are leaders?

We talk about them. We work for them. We aspire to be one of them. Occasionally, we elect them. But seldom do we ask what leaders actually are. After all, animals don't have leaders. So far as I know, there are no examples of 'leadership' anywhere in the animal kingdom outside of the human race. 
Does that statement seem hard to swallow? Let's think over the facts. Gorillas, for instance, don't they have leaders? They have silverbacks, after all. Nope. They have dominant males. Those males don't shape the feeding strategy or direction for the group. They just exercise sexual dominance. The decision makers in group behavior tend to be those individuals with the greatest need. Eg: pregnant females or females with young. The same goes for wolves, lions, naked mole rats, you name it. There are loads of examples of sexual dominance, but dominance is uncoupled from group decision making. 
Okay, you may say, but consider bees and ants. They have queens that produce all the offspring in the hive. They produce pheromones that mediate a huge amount of hive behavior. Surely, in this case, we have some animals we can point to that exhibit leadership. The answer is still no. And, in this case, Richard Dawkins makes an important point about this in his 1990 book, The Selfish Gene. Namely, that it's at least as legitimate to think of the workers exploiting the queen as it is to think of the queen leading the workers.
While there is still much discussion about exactly how hive cooperation arises, in the case of bees and ants it's undeniable that the workers in a hive are more related to each other than they are to any offspring that are produced. Therefore, it's in many ways the most logical approach to consider the workers as a group that's using the queen to perpetuate a colony of sisters.
Having no other examples of leadership for nature is unsettling. It leaves us with the horrible challenge of explaining how the invention of leadership has sprung out of nothing in the last few million years.
But wait a minute. If examples of leadership seem so rare in nature, maybe we're not thinking about leadership the right way. Maybe we're so used to thinking of leaders through the lens of human interpretation that we're missing the parallels with other natural systems. What happens if, instead, we turn our model of leadership about? Say, for example, if we look at the example of the queen bee, and see what other, perhaps hidden, parallels actually exist? 
To my mind, the answers to this question are striking, and they've transformed my recent thinking about business and politics. To explain what I mean, let's take a human example that hopefully makes the connection clear: Elizabeth II, Queen of England.
Queen Elizabeth occupies what is generally considered to be a powerful leadership position. Heads of state defer to her. Crowds come out to support her. She comes with top billing in governments and religious organizations world over. But what does she actually control? How many decisions that she makes actually affect anyone besides her own family? Arguably, none. Furthermore, Elizabeth has a busy schedule that's administered by her handlers. She has international appointment bookings that stretch for years, none of which she personally chose. In many ways, our human queen looks rather like a bee.
So why do we call her a leader? The answer is, of course, historical. She's the descendent of prior rulers who were actually exercising power. And as that power was whittled away and replaced with a democratic system, her symbolic role was retained. That, at least, is the popular answer, and it's basically useless.
It's useless because it doesn't tell us why her symbolic role was retained. If leadership is about exercising control, as we generally assume, why wasn't the monarchy dumped the moment it became irrelevant? The popular riposte is to say 'because people liked the monarchy and wanted it to persist'. But this isn't a good answer either. Why did people want the monarchy to persist. Why do people still want her there now?
I propose that the reason why the queen exists, and the reason why all leaders exist, is precisely because human beings are a lot like bees. We create leaders to exploit.
What I mean by this is that human beings select individuals to fulfill specific social roles. We make room in society for those roles, and we clad those roles in ideas that ensure that we never look too closely at what they truly entail. Why do we do this? We do it to make cooperative behavior more robust. 
Cooperation is a tricky business. Anyone who's spent a few years studying game theory will tell you that. A society of individuals who cooperate with each other is always at risk of being subverted by individuals who cheat, unless they have some strategy for punishing cheaters.
In the case of humans, this problem is even more pronounced. Because we have language, gossip, tool use, and planning, the number of ways to cheat is uncountable, and the number of ways for humans to punish each other is broad and ghastly. In order to survive, human beings have evolved a natural tendency to cooperate automatically, which only ever starts to switch off when conscious thought is brought into play.
In order to mitigate the risk of instinctive cooperation, I propose that humans have evolved social structure that allow us to borrow cheating from others
Consider two populations. In one, let's call it Population A, people cooperate automatically, except when they discover someone who is aggressively out for themselves at the cost of others. Let's call these people 'defectors'.
In the other group, Population B, people still cooperate automatically. However, when they encounter a defector, they call that person a 'leader'. They cooperate with that person while still cooperating with each other. They relinquish control of some fraction of the social order to the defector and let them do what they want.
How effective is Population B? That depends on how good their defector is. If their defector is crappy and has no imagination, then Population B suffers. However, if the defector has ambition, Population B finds itself charging over the hill to burn Population A's village and claim all their food. In this case, Population B wins big-time, even though most of the people in that group are still behaving cooperatively with each other all the time.
There's a catch here, though. In order to make this work, the people in Population B have to find a way to suspend their sense of fair play while doing or watching some of the shitty things that their defector has recommended. If they don't, they're going to have trouble holding onto their identity as cooperators.
So, to make the strategy work, the people in Population B have to be constantly evaluating possible 'leaders' from among any defectors who arise. Those who don't make the cut are drowned in the village well as liars and cheats. Those who do are promoted and eulogized. We tell ourselves that their control over society is inevitable because 'they're the ones with the power', and that their aggressive exercise of will illustrates 'vision and direction'.
This, I'd say, explains why we have trouble understanding leadership or finding it in other species. We're looking for what we want leadership to be, not what it is. In truth, we own our leaders. We make them happen. We take individuals whose capacity for cooperation is damaged, and we use them as tools for social advantage. 
To my mind, this is an important point to be sharing with the world right now. That's because the leaders we've chosen haven't done a very good job, by and large, as evidenced by the Arab Spring, the austerity disaster in Europe, worldwide banking scandals, etc. 
It's important for us to remember that our leaders exist because we let them. Their power is, and always has been, exercised by us, because it's less risky than cheating ourselves. At any time, we can take those leaders and replace them with others we think will do a better job. That's how society works. 
That idea is easy to absorb when it comes to elected officials, but it is at least as true for every banker on Wall St. That's because wealth is just another form of legitimized defection. Hence, if we don't like how they're going about things, we should swap them out. After all, they, just like the queen, belong to us. 


  1. This is a very interesting essay, Alex, on the historical and biological roots of leadership. You seem to be conflating leaders with figureheads, though, and leaving out the important point that the extent to which leaders "belong to us" is relative to the system in which they operate -- to our access to them and our influence with them. Carl Jung said, essentially, that we project our own leadership potential onto others. That projection can be cynical and exploitative or truly self-sacrificing. Returning to the issue of hive animals and genetics, since evolution proceeds at the level of the gene, an individual can evolve a high degree of altruism in serving the propagation of the selfish gene.

    You make an important point about the ambivalent condition of leadership, however. It is very difficult to tell whether a leader is a cynical exploiter or a selfless champion of the oppressed. _Our_ candidates are usually the selfless champions, of course; it's the other side that is infested with naked cynicism and contempt.

  2. Check out this video:
    minute 44:00.. using CAT scans and behavior tests to characterize "psychopath".. and finding out these people can mimic what we look for in a leader. They did tests and found a 4x higher rate of this kind of personality in leadership positions.

    "Corporate culture today seems ideal for the phsychopath."