A 2015 study by Gallup revealed that a shocking 1 in 2 people who quit their jobs left because of poor management. Fewer than 1/3 of American workers report feeling engaged at work, and poor leadership is partly to blame. If leaders are so bad for our work environment, why do we still have them?
Unexpectedly, leadership is in our biology.
As much as many of us hate to admit it, we are naturally predisposed to seek the guidance of leaders. The dynamic between leaders and followers can be found across countless species– from horses to bees to wolves. Leaders compel groups to act in order to keep them safe or help them fulfill a biological need to eat, drink, or reproduce.
Primates have evolved to form complex social hierarchies. Like chimps and macaques, we humans have created social structures to guarantee that our basic needs are met and ensure the well-being of the group.
In the animal kingdom, some creatures reach leadership status through circumstances.
These are called circumstantial leaders. For example, if a stallion is killed, leadership of the herd reverts to the next dominant horse in line. Equines work to understand who is “high horse” every day so that they can ensure that their leader is the strongest and the most likely to assure their survival.
While it has gotten easier for us to get what we need, we still organize ourselves into hierarchies in response to circumstances. Some leaders come to their positions organically. For example, a worker with specialized training may find themselves in charge of a professional development workshop simply because they possess knowledge that their coworkers need.
Some species actively assert their leadership abilities to convince others to follow them.
These are called prospective leaders.Ants and bees send members of their group in search of food sources. These scouts return to their group after finding food, and they convince others to follow them through “dances” or distinct flight patterns.
Human leaders also assert their desire to take on leadership roles. They may volunteer to take on more responsibility or apply for jobs that enable them to take on leadership roles. They make their intent to lead explicit to the rest of the group. If they make their case convincingly enough, others will follow them.
We are wired to have things in order.
This information about animal social hierarchies is all well and good, but it doesn’t seem to explain why you need to listen to your boss today. As it turns out, leaders in the work place are a continuation of our natural inclination to organize.
From early hominids, to hunter-gathers, to the current members of the Information Age, leaders rise to create order.
Organization of groups and new technology helped people transition from livings as nomads to agrarians to agriculturalists. The Neolithic Revolution, which marked an increased reliance on agriculture, spurred human settlements to grow and organize in new ways.
This organization was necessary to maintain control and safeguard the settlements’ survival. Settlement development continued for thousands of years and resulted in some of today’s most impressive archaeological remains. The pyramids at Giza were not constructed by a bunch of individuals depositing 15-ton blocks at their leisure, after all. Real cooperation and skill went into building these elaborate tombs, and it was all done at the behest of their leaders, the pharaohs.
The massive Bronze Age palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos exemplify regional centers in Greece. We see similar evidence for social hierarchy in the Mississippian United States in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Although these communities conceptualized their worlds differently and existed on opposite ends of the globe, the result of their leadership structure was the same; they could ensure the survival of their people through amassing resources, which could be redistributed in the event of a crisis. These settlement structures also enabled groups to trade items within their network to enrich the lives of their people and further reinforce the status of certain members of these groups.
Games such as Sid Meier’s Civilization help modern audiences understand the way that leadership styles adapted to address socio-political and environmental issues throughout human history.
Our definition of leadership has changed though.
In general, past leadership styles relied on centralized control and the presence of an exalted leader. (Think of all the god-kings that pepper our history books.) Today, leadership tends to be more diffuse, collaborative, and group-oriented. Our interest in democracies is one example of this distribution of power across multiple entities.
In addition to unifying us to ensure the survival of the species, our leaders work to help our companies and businesses survive. Leadership is constantly evolving to address the changing social and political climate. At this point, there seems to be a disconnect between what we need from our leaders and what they offer us today, which could explain why we question our need for them. Recent scholarship considers finding solid leadership talent to be one of the top concerns facing businesses today.
Modern leaders do best when they avoid autocracy.
Democratic leaders seek input from team members. The combined intellectual and creative input leads to a more energetic and optimistic work environment. Leaders who seek to develop the skills of their subordinates foster a growth mindset in the workplace.
Group leaders may have a great deal of skill, but the most gifted leaders recognize that they must give their team members opportunities to shine in order to support their objectives. Distributing some power enables employees to become more confident, competent, and invested. When everyone is committed to the outcome, the combined talents of the group exceed the capabilities of the leader acting alone.
The tendency toward collaboration is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
One of the biggest struggles that companies face today is the readiness gap.  A recent study found that only 25% of Fortune 500 companies felt they had leaders adequately prepared to fill leadership roles. When we consider this gap, it is easy to understand why our bosses may occasionally do cringe-worthy things. Developing leadership skills takes time, and right now our demand outstrips the supply.
Even with a talented workforce, we still need leaders to shape our direction and lead us toward an overarching vision. In spite of a perceived lack of experience, the best leaders work to grow their skills. Rather than take on an adversarial relationship with our superiors, there may be room for negotiation and input that can lead to profound outcomes for all of us.
A world without leaders could be chaotic.
Despite the fact that sometimes our bosses miss the mark, when they do their jobs well, their employees have more freedom to excel in their roles. Managers have administrative responsibilities for which we are unaware. When they take on these burdens, they allow us to focus and make our day run more smoothly. Our leaders resolve conflicts and help us unify around a collective vision.
Even on our leaders’ worst days, their presence is preferable to a world in which they don’t exist. While we could survive without leaders, competition over resources would likely lead to violence and destabilization, and it would stall our ability to innovate as a society. Imagine a workplace in which there is no one to resolve conflicts and no one to have the final say.
It takes visionaries to motivate groups of people to unite around a common goal. Public works, advances in modern technology, and our continuous drive toward making the world a better place could not happen without leadership and collaboration.
|||^||Gallup: Employees want a lot more from their managers|
|||^||Current Biology: The origins and evolution of leadership|
|||^||Live Science: How great leaders evolved|
|||^||Tudor Rickards: A Brief History of Leadership|
|||^||National Geographic: The Development of Agriculture|
|||^||Profiles International: The evolution of leadership|
|||^||Forbes: Successful organizations need leaders at all levels|
|||^||Forbes: The Dangerous Leadership Readiness Gap Today and How to Close It|