Saturday, 16 February 2013

The psychology of leadership

Who would you rather be? A three times married, luxury car and yacht collector CEO or a CEO who gives himself/herself $1 annual salary and is focused on employee welfare? And who would you rather work for?

This was the question asked by Professor Mark Van Vugt to open his lecture I attended Wednesday 13th February entitled Follow me: the evolutionary psychology of (charismatic) leadership and power. Mark van Vugt is Professor of Group and Organizational Psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University.
He explained that leadership is something that all cultures have but that there are many models of leadership with no scientific value and people can make a fortune writing about it. This is something I am beginning to discover in the Library Leadership Reading Group – everyone has a theory but few have the evidence to back it up. Despite there being so many publications, Mark informed us, there are still many questions unanswered such as:

  • Why do tall leader candidates usually beat shorter ones in elections?
  • Why does power corrupt?
  • Why do women CEO’s attract so much hostility?
His theory is that leaders and followers are inevitable in social structures; these techniques evolved as strategies to ensure coordination of activities, for example, food gathering, making shelters etc. If our brains think we are under threat they have evolved to recognise what to do to solve the problem and this includes following physically stronger people if we are in physical danger or experienced people if we are feeling unsure about something.

Mark gave examples of leadership in the animal kingdom and explained that while many are leaders through their dominance, occasionally the leader is someone unexpected. Elephants, for example, follow the oldest female as she knows where all the waterholes are. I didn’t figure out why the oldest male wouldn’t know this and it seems to be the wrong place to make a quip about asking for directions.

Bees do a waggle dance to signify their leadership
According to Mark, humans are natural born followers as it is the default setting in our brain. This is probably a good job as there isn’t the space for lots of leaders; however, I have never seen a book entitled – how to be a good follower. Reasons why we follow others could be because we want to be leaders in the future so are watching how it’s done, because we want to learn new skills and/or because we want protection.  Mark told us how humans are generally egalitarian and moralistic and have an aversion to being dominated, hence groups like Occupy, Anonymous and cases like Wikileaks spring up as a defence against big corporations, politicians and other groups we perceive to be bullies.  While I’d like to believe him, I think his statistic that for two thirds of employees the most stressful aspect of their job is their boss indicates we are still a little way off treating everyone as equals.

Many of his findings I found to be quite disappointing, e.g. children can often tell who will win an election by looking at the candidates’ faces indicating that voters prefer a tall, charismatic man regardless of his policies, that women are generally not seen as leaders unless it is to broker peace and that if you give anyone power their empathy reduces and they become more self-focused.
I had attended this lecture as I am interested in what makes people tick. Learning about leadership in the past has helped me not only increase my own skills when having to manage people and lead projects in the past but also helped me understand the people I work for. This lecture made me feel slightly disillusioned that people are swayed by superficiality when making important decisions and I know that this has always been the case but seeing  it in black and white on a screen makes stark viewing. This week I have also just finished reading The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson which outlines the charismatic charm which psychopaths use to get their own way. The combination of the two emphasised to me the importance of understanding how our brains respond to situations and people so we can recognise this and do something about it.

And to answer the question set at the beginning – most people would rather be the first person but would rather work for the second. I’ll leave that up to you to decide what that says about our moralistic and egalitarian race.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this session, really interesting.

    I read Strengths-based Leadership yesterday and enjoyed it - looking forward to seeing what you think at the next LLRG chat.