Book Review: Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership

Bruce Gibb

Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership
by Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja

(New York: HarperCollins), 2011.

Bruce Gibb

Bruce Gibb

The authors purport to present a “brand new theory of leadership, grounded in evolutionary science” which they dub the “Evolutionary Theory of Leadership” or ELT. They accept what they call the textbook definition of a leader: “A leader is someone able to exert social influence on others to accomplish a common goal.”

In general Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership brings together the now commonly accepted evolution of social systems beginning with ancestral hunter-gatherer bands and ending with contemporary global organizations. Like Baumiester(1), they integrate findings from social science research and ethnography and leadership theory into this evolutionary trajectory.  However, the claim to originality of the concept is questionable given Antony Jay’s classic study of the tribal roots of contemporary organizational behavior in his book Corporation Man(2). Similar to SD, they understand that all leadership takes place in social systems of some scale, that become one of the key life conditions which determine individual behavior.

I found the integration into ELT framework of 10 often-competing theories of leadership insightful. These theories are: great man, trait, psychoanalytic, charismatic, behavioral, situational, contingency, transactional-transformational, distributed leadership, and servant leadership.

Some of their descriptions of the stages of cultural evolution are confusing to someone using SDi because they conflate various stages.  In my view, this occurs because the authors do not employ a common set of variables for each development stage which can be used to distinguish it from the others.  They describe small, beige, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands and differentiate them from purple settled tribes of up to 150 members; this size limit (the Dunbar number) being based on the number of people that one individual can know personally.  The life conditions up to this point emphasize the sources of food: hunting/gathering and agriculture (probably better identified as horticulture). However, the next higher scale which we in SDi denote as red, Power-Independence, is conflated with stage 4, Blue, Truth-Order without conceptual or descriptive clarity.  Modern, orange, post-enlightenment social systems and those which follow it (green, yellow, and turquoise) are also grouped together.

This conflation however, does not diminish their thesis: that the genetic and cultural inheritance from these “ancestral” (protohuman, beige and purple) stages is still very much with us and remain key characteristics of the leader-follower relationship.  Their analysis would be enriched by the identification of the dynamics causing the transitions between stages; each of the transitions in Wilber’s  “transcend and include” dynamic, What is carried forward? What is left behind in each of these transitions?

In the early part of the book, they emphasize that individuals choose to follow leaders, which I thought was an expression of a modern individualistic bias; but they recognize later the importance of family, clan membership, and tradition in these relationships.  To be accurate chronologically, I would have reversed the order starting with family then moving to social systems of larger scale.

One serious issue for me is their assumption that clans, tribes, empires, etc. all are unimodal;  that is the fallacy that they have only one mode of operation: the hierarchy, which characterizes only the vertical dimension of relationships. I postulate that all these social systems are bimodal.  So at the beige band or clan scale, the members do their work in one mode or structure with only male-female role specialization but in addition they congregate in another mode or structure as a family to eat and sleep, celebrate their successes, learn from their mistakes, and plan their future actions.

Likewise, when the tribe (purple) is large enough to have subgroups with sufficient numbers to specialize as hunters, warriors, tool-makers, shaman and acolytes, etc.,  they do their work in a vertical structure and hierarchical mode.  But in addition to these hierarchical subgroups with leaders who emerge based on their experience and competence, the whole community meets in a circular camp configuration to tell their history and genealogy (identity), to incorporate new members (births), to engage in rites of passage, to learn from their experiences, to celebrate their successes, to earn from their failures and plan their big actions such as moving to follow the herds.  The authors make only one reference to this circular structure in an ethnographic report about the Mae Enga, a tribal society in Papua New Guinea. The warriors meet to decide whether to initiate hostilities against a neighboring tribe, an illustration of the circular mode but within the warrior substructure.

I would postulate that these two modes and structures—the work mode, which is hierarchical and the community mode which is egalitarian—can be found in all social systems. They present the issue as one of multiple requirements of leaders who, as I see it, may not be competent in both modes. The expectations of leadership differ in each of these two modes.  In this treatise, the authors do not make this distinction and consequently have difficulty making sense of both types of behaviors since they limit their conceptualization to the hierarchical mode.  This is another instance the bias of male western researchers which Supolski describes in his book, A Primate’s Memoir(3), who often focus on the male dominance hierarchy in primate bands and ignore the more circular community life governed by the females.

The authors go to great length to demonstrate how the “natural” penchant for the democracy, the natural dynamic in primal hunting and gathering clans, continues to manifest itself in our current social systems.  The “big man” of tribal societies engaged in potlatches to redistribute goods (or destroy them) and appease this egalitarian norm. Egalitarianism has been selected for and is now in our genes and we have developed strategies to overcome those who manifest unhealthy red dominance. They identify seven Strategies to Overcome the Powerful (STOP) which have been used over the centuries to diminish the influence of overbearing leaders. The strategies are gossip, public discussions (in the community mode), satire (also in community), disobedience (in the work mode), deposing by kinsmen (in either mode), desertion (the community leaves the leader), and assassination of the leader (by representatives of the community).

On the other hand, an aspiring leader can extend his/her (but being female in their view is not an ancestral characteristic of leadership) influence by using one or some combination of seven Strategies to Enhance Power (STEP).  Some of these strategies are used at all stages of cultural evolution, some are more characteristic of particular stages.  They are: nepotism and corruption (purple and red); providing public goods efficiently and generously (they use blue Singapore as an example but the efficiency standard is classically orange); instigate a monopoly on the use of force to curb public violence (classic blue control of red); exterminate (metaphorically) or neutralize political enemies; defeat or, if necessary, create and defeat a common enemy; manipulate the hearts and minds of followers and finally, create an ideology to justify their exalted position (blue).

They summarize their advice for leaders with dictatorial ambitions in the following paragraph:

“. . . we have identified the seven-STEP path to power: (1) be corrupt and nepotistic, (2) provide public goods generously, (3) maintain order, (4) turn political rivals into allies, (5) find an external threat, (6) control the media and (7) invent an ideology that legitimizes your power.”

They conclude with 10 lessons for leadership in the modern world (sorry, no clever acronym to summarize them):
1.            Don’t overrate the romance of leadership.
2.            Find a niche and develop your prestige (experience and competence).
3.            Keep it small and natural.
4.            Favor followers.
5.            Practice distributed leadership.
6.            Mind the pay gap.
7.            Look for leaders from within (the organization).
8.            Watch out for nepotism.
9.            Avoid the dark side (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathology).
10.            Don’t judge a leader by his or her cover (as primates do).

These are reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’ injunctions to “guardians” in her book, Systems of Survival: shun trading, exert prowess, be obedient and disciplined, adhere to tradition, respect hierarchy, be loyal, take vengeance, deceive for the sake of the task, make rich use of leisure, be ostentatious, dispense largesses, be exclusive, show fortitude, be fatalistic, and treasure honor.  The injunctions for leaders engaged in commerce is quite different.  The authors do not differentiate between the type of leadership required by these two sectors or any others for that matter.

The book is a great beginning in the sorting out the ancestral basis of leadership as we understand it from anthropology and history and integrating it with the experimental social science research on the topic.  It provides many potential hypotheses and testable propositions for those who thrive on challenging and refining what they have so engagingly chunked out.  It is both accessible and fun to read.

End Notes

1. Roy Baumeister, The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life. (New York: Oxford), 2005.
2. Antony Jay,
Corporation Man: Who he is, what he does, why his ancient tribal impulses dominate the life of the modern corporation. (New York: Random House), 1971.
3.  Robert M. Sapolsky,
A Primates Memoir: A nueroscientist’s unconventional life among the Baboons. (New York: Scribner), 2001.


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