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The Nature of Leadership

As the American media continues to buzz over who is more or less likely to secure the Republican and Democratic nominations for U.S. President, researchers in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution review some interesting perspectives on the nature of leadership. The experts from a wide range of disciplines examined patterns of leadership in a set of small-scale mammalian societies, including humans and other social mammals such as elephants and meerkats.

“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,” said Jennifer Smith of Mills College in Oakland, California. “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.”

Chimpanzees travel together, capuchins cooperate in fights, and spotted hyenas cooperate in hunting, but the common ways that leaders promote those collective actions has remained mysterious, Smith and her colleagues say. It wasn’t clear just how much human leaders living in small-scale societies have in common with those in other mammalian societies either.

To consider this issue, a group of biologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, and psychologists gathered at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis. These experts reviewed the evidence for leadership in four domains–movement, food acquisition, within-group conflict mediation, and between-group interactions–to categorize patterns of leadership in five dimensions: distribution across individuals, emergence (achieved versus inherited), power, relative payoff to leadership, and generality across domains.

Despite what those ongoing presidential primaries might lead one to think, the analysis by the scientific experts finds that leadership is generally achieved as individuals gain experience, in both humans and non-humans. There are notable 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 comparison to other mammal species, human leaders aren’t so powerful after all. Leadership amongst other mammalian species tends to be more concentrated, with leaders that wield more power over the group.

Smith says the similarities probably reflect shared cognitive mechanisms governing dominance and subordination, alliance formation, and decision-making–humans are mammals after all. The differences may be explained in part by humans’ tendency to take on more specialized roles within society.

Image shows spotted hyenas.

This is a photograph of spotted hyenas in Kenya. Credit: David S. Green.

“Even in the least complex human societies, the scale of collective action is greater and presumably more critical for survival and reproduction than in most other mammalian societies,” Smith said.

The researchers now plan to further quantify the various dimensions identified in the new work. There’s still plenty more to learn. “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,” Smith said.

About this psychology research

Funding: This project was sponsored by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, supported through the National Science Foundation, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Source: Joseph Caputo – Cell Press
Image Credit: The image is credited to David S. Green
Original Research: Abstract for “Leadership in Mammalian Societies: Emergence, Distribution, Power, and Payoff” by Jennifer E. Smith, Sergey Gavrilets, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Paul L. Hooper, Claire El Mouden, Daniel Nettle, Christoph Hauert, Kim Hill, Susan Perry, Anne E. Pusey, Mark van Vugt, and Eric Alden Smith in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Published online November 6 2015 doi:10.1016/j.tree.2015.09.013


Abstract

Leadership in Mammalian Societies: Emergence, Distribution, Power, and Payoff

Leadership is an active area of research in both the biological and social sciences. This review provides a transdisciplinary synthesis of biological and social-science views of leadership from an evolutionary perspective, and examines patterns of leadership in a set of small-scale human and non-human mammalian societies. We review empirical and theoretical work on leadership in four domains: movement, food acquisition, within-group conflict mediation, and between-group interactions. We categorize patterns of variation in leadership in five dimensions: distribution (across individuals), emergence (achieved versus inherited), power, relative payoff to leadership, and generality (across domains). We find that human leadership exhibits commonalities with and differences from the broader mammalian pattern, raising interesting theoretical and empirical issues.

Trends
Leadership is an active research area in both biological and social sciences, but there has been limited synthesis within or across these areas; evolutionary theory can assist with such synthesis, but additional elements are needed for a robust comparative framework.

Variation in leadership can be 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?).

A comparative framework based on these dimensions can reveal commonalities and differences among leaders in mammalian societies, including human societies.

“Leadership in Mammalian Societies: Emergence, Distribution, Power, and Payoff” by Jennifer E. Smith, Sergey Gavrilets, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Paul L. Hooper, Claire El Mouden, Daniel Nettle, Christoph Hauert, Kim Hill, Susan Perry, Anne E. Pusey, Mark van Vugt, and Eric Alden Smith in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Published online November 6 2015 doi:10.1016/j.tree.2015.09.013

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