Leaders are seen as high status, knowledgeable or intelligent, and experienced or accomplished in over 80% of cultures. Leaders resolve conflicts, organize cooperation, and provide counsel or direction in over 70% of cultures. Leaders benefit materially, reproductively, or socially in over 50% of cultures.
Leaders and followers are critical to understanding human psychology, social organization, and culture. Teaming up with researchers at Washington State University, IAST evolutionary anthropologist Zachary Garfield has conducted the first systematic investigation of the functions, qualities, costs and benefits of leader-follower dynamics, using a diverse sample of non-industrial societies.
What makes a leader stand out from the pack? How much does leadership vary between cultures and in different social contexts? What are the benefits and costs for group members? Zachary and his coauthors sought answers to these questions in a database of 1,212 ethnographic texts from 59 different cultures. Their exploratory study coded entirely new variables on the functions and qualities of leaders and the costs and benefits of leadership and followership, providing a unique cross-cultural assessment of 109 leadership traits.
Who's the boss?
Crunching the numbers, Zachary’s results suggest that certain leadership qualities are widespread, or even universal. “Leaders are seen as high status, knowledgeable or intelligent, and experienced or accomplished in about 80% or more of cultures, and function to resolve conflicts, organize cooperation, and provide counsel or direction in over 70% of cultures. Leaders benefited materially, reproductively, or socially in 50% or more of cultures.”
Both gains and losses in terms of social status and material resources were widely reported, suggesting that leadership can be a high-risk, high-return strategy. Nevertheless, there was more evidence of benefits than costs for both leaders and followers.
The researchers also found important variation in leadership traits depending on: group context (for example, leaders of kin groups tended to be older and to provide counsel and direction); subsistence strategy (for example, hunter-gatherers tended to lack leaders with coercive authority); sex (for example, female leaders were associated with family contexts); and continental region.
Evidence for several theoretically important leadership traits was surprisingly rare. Movement or migration was identified as a leader function in only 13.6% of cultures, of which the vast majority were hunter-gatherers. Machiavelli may have raised an eyebrow if he had been told that less than a third of cultures appear to regard leaders with fear, or as a source of moral authority or “fairness”. Many observers of industrialized societies have focused on leaders’ sex appeal, but only 3.4% of Zachary’s largely non-industrial sample provided evidence that leaders were physically attractive.
Zachary’s results provide broad cross-cultural support for influential evolutionary theories that stress the significance of leader aggression and coercion (dominance), as well as culturally acquired skills (prestige). However, shamans emerged as a major leadership category that refutes the idea that followers receive either the benefits of ‘brains’ or the costs of ‘brawn’. “Shamanism appears to be a distinct form of leadership that combines a strategy of inducing fear, similar to the dominance strategy, but is based on knowledge and expertise, similar to the prestige strategy... The dominance-prestige and ‘dual-model’ theories of leadership cannot easily account for shaman leaders nor ‘chiefs-for-a-day’ (managers). These models have conflated the ability to provide ‘benefits’ with knowledge and expertise, and the ability to impose ‘costs’ with physical formidability. As shaman leaders demonstrate, knowledge and expertise can both provide benefits and impose costs,
and the same goes for physical formidability.”
The importance of shamans highlights the value of evidence from non-industrial cultures. Outside of anthropology, most scholarship on leadership is based on data from rich, Western societies. Zachary’s results underline that this problem cannot be remedied by a simple, ‘non-Western’ solution. “Our research clearly demonstrates enormous diversity among populations that are now often categorized as ‘non-WEIRD’, ‘traditional’, or ‘small-scale’. Anthropologists have often made the opposite mistake in essentializing diverse ‘others’ and failing to recognize deep similarities among peoples of all cultures.”
This diversity remains a huge challenge for any theory that seeks to capture the reality of human leadership. Yet Zachary’s findings suggest promising avenues for the expansion and synthesis of existing perspectives. “Leaders across cultures,” his paper concludes, “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.”
"Theories of leadership have conf lated ‘benefits’ with knowledge and expertise, and ‘costs’ with physical formidability. As shaman leaders demonstrate, knowledge and expertise can both provide benefits and impose costs, and the same goes for physical formidability"
Extract from IAST Magazine #17, Summer 2021
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash