Press release: The nature and diversity of leadership across human societies

Researchers explore the nature and diversity of leadership across human societies
Thursday, August 13, 2020 - Toulouse. Zachary Garfield and co-authors Kristen Syme and Edward Hagen published a new cross-cultural study in Evolution and Human Behavior documenting universal and variable dimensions of leadership across diverse nonindustrial societies and variable social contexts.
The past decade has seen increased interdisciplinary focus on leadership and followership by evolutionary scientists. Collaborations between anthropologists, biologists, and psychologists have been useful in identifying similarities and differences in leadership dynamics between humans and other nonhuman social species. However, the vast majority of this work on humans relied on data from Western or industrialized populations. Despite recent advances by anthropologists, a comprehensive and systematic view of the qualities and functions of leaders and the costs and benefits of leadership for both leaders and followers from a representative sample of human societies was lacking. Existing theories on human leadership, therefore, have been largely based on data from industrial populations, a few anthropological cases studies, or researcher-selected ethnographic descriptions.
A cross-cultural view of human leadership
A team of researchers from the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse (France) and Washington State University (USA) developed a cross-cultural database of dimensions of leadership, drawing on the ethnographic record of 59 largely nonindustrial populations. They provide a near comprehensive view of the traits of leaders, their roles, and the types of costs and benefits leaders and followers incur. Their analyses focused both on patterns across cultures with different subsistence economies across the globe (such as between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists), and within populations across different types of social contexts (such as between economic groups and kin groups). Zachary Garfield explains, “researchers are becoming increasingly aware of how important leader-follower dynamics are to many topics in behavioral science, such as cooperation, economic systems, inequalities, mate preferences, and social institutions. There is a general consensus that there are some universal aspects of human leadership, but also that the nature of leadership is obviously highly variable across cultures and across social contexts. What was lacking was an empirical and systematic view of what this universality and variability actually looked like across a broad range of human cultural diversity.”
Behavioral science moves beyond the WEIRD
This study is part of a special issue of Evolution and Human Behavior titled, Beyond WEIRD: progress on expanding evolutionary research beyond WEIRD populations, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the seminal paper by Joseph Henrich and colleagues, The weirdest people in the world? (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2010). The “WEIRD people paper” documented systemic biases in behavioral science which has relied heavily on participants from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic contexts. For example, U.S. undergraduate students have provided the vast majority of psychological, economic, and behavioral data despite often being distinct from other individuals in “non-WEIRD” settings.
Diversity in human leadership and shaman leaders
Potential universal traits of human leaders include being knowledgable and intelligent, resolving conflicts, gaining resources and social status, representing the group, and being generous. Most dimensions of leadership, however, are variable across cultures or are context dependent. These cross-cultural results highlight the importance of data from nonindustrial populations in understanding human leadership dynamics. For example, psychologists and biologists have emphasized a distinction between dominance – enforcing costs through force and aggression – and prestige – providing benefits through special skills and knowledge – and have claimed these two leadership strategies are distinct and common across human groups and nonhuman species. The ethnographic record, however, revealed that shamans and other human leaders perceived to have supernatural qualities rely on both specialized knowledge and aggression to impose costs and provide benefits. Therefore, shaman leaders represent an overlooked but important aspect of human-specific leadership dynamics. Garfield and co-authors conclude emphasizing, “leaders across cultures rely on a range of individual competencies, including cognitive, supernatural, material, social, and physical endowments, to organize group members, implement strategic actions, provide prosocial services to the group, and impose costs, all while conforming to cultural norms. Currently, no single theoretical perspective has yet captured the ethnographic reality of human leadership.”