By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor
What are the general principles of leadership? Not so long ago, a group of scientists—biologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, and psychologists—gathered at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis to answer this question from an evolutionary perspective. The scientists analyzed leadership patterns across a sample of mammalian species, and published their results in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (January 2016). The article (Leadership in Mammalian Societies: Emergence, Distribution, Power, and Payoff) reveals that, while humans and other mammalians species exhibit different leadership patterns, they also share some leadership features.
Jennifer Smith, lead author of the study, said in a press release: “While previous work has typically started with the premise that leadership is somehow intrinsically different or more complex in humans than in other mammals, we started without a perceived notion about whether this should be the case. By approaching this problem with an open mind and by developing comparable measures to compare vastly different societies, we revealed more similarities than previously appreciated between leadership in humans and non-humans.”
The scientists compared 16 different small-scale societies, including 8 human populations lacking complex political institutions—from Africa and North and South America, and 8 nonhuman groups: African elephants, bottlenose dolphins, chimpanzees, lions, meerkats, plains zebras, spotted hyenas, and white-faced capuchins. Evidence for leadership was evaluated in four domains—movement, food acquisition, within-group conflict mediation, and between-group interactions. Variation in leadership was measured in multiple dimensions, including emergence (how does one become a leader?), distribution (how widely shared is leadership?), power (how much power do leaders wield over followers?), relative benefit (do leaders gain more or less than followers?), and generality (how likely are leaders in one domain, such as movement or conflict resolution, to lead in other domains?)
As mentioned above, the study results show that, when comparing humans to other mammalian species, there are both similarities and differences in leadership patterns. Despite common assumptions often made around the notion of human uniqueness, the scientists found no clear divide between human and nonhuman social mammals with respect to the emergence of leadership. Indeed, in both humans and nonhuman species, leadership is generally based on individual achievement, gained through experience, as compared to inherited status. However, there are exceptions to this rule: leadership is inherited rather than gained through experience among spotted hyenas and the Nootka, a Native Canadian tribe on the northwest coast of North America.
In addition, the scientists found that human leaders generally wield less power than do nonhuman mammalian leaders—humans tend to develop specialized roles, with a minimal impact of dominance on leadership. These characteristics indicate significant evolutionary divergences between humans and nonhuman mammalian species.
There is still much to be learned. Indeed, Smith said: “As ambitious as our task was, we have only just scraped the surface in characterizing leadership across mammalian societies and some of the most exciting aspects of the project are still yet to come as biologists and anthropologists implement our novel scheme for additional taxa and societies.”
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