As Hunter-Gatherers, we made collective leadership decisions
Antiquated perceptions of leadership continue to drive leadership practices. Leadership
is commonly assumed to be intimately connected to power, prestige, and position. A focus
on personal reward—a ‘what’s in it for me’ leadership attitude—envelopes the leadership
psyche. Corrupt behaviors are the result. This is not new. van Vugt and Ahuja (2011)
explain that a major shift in our collective notions of leadership occurred when we,
societally, transitioned from hunter-gather to agrarian societies.
As hunter-gatherers we made leadership decisions as a group. The unit needed to
agree—their lives depended on it literally. If one person wanted to go hunting, chance
of survival against wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, or the elements, was slim.
Only the group could (potentially) accomplish the hunting objective.
As agrarian societies developed, leadership decision-making shifted. The group decisionmaking
process was replaced by individual decision-making. The person (or family) who
had the most (e.g., land, crops, livestock, etc.) wielded the most power. Not-so-ironically,
they typically held formal positions of authority and brandished the most prestige. Does
this sound familiar? This is the legacy of leadership today—this is typically how we
understand and conceptualize leadership in the first quarter of the 21st century. How do you
see it in your organization or community? What about in business? In education? In politics?
In sports and entertainment? This notion of leadership is everywhere.
We’re up against 10,000 years of culture—we have a long, up-hill adventure to generate
cultural change around leadership mental frames. How exciting! If we are to change
our own—and our leadership training participants’ thinking about leadership—we need
to alter what we believe leadership is about—away from power, position, prestige,
and personal reward. Rather, we need to emphasize that leadership is about the
authentic person and purpose for leading.
We need to shift our inherent leadership questions—away from ‘what’s in it for me?’--
and towards questions of depth, meaning, and significance. More so, we need to carve
out intentional space for reflecting on these questions—and providing responses.
Regarding the authentic person, we can probe about ‘who am I?’ ‘what are my values?’
and ‘what is my vision?’ Regarding the authentic purpose, we can postulate about ‘how
can I engage in good, meaningful work?’ and ‘where do my personal passions intersect
with the pressing needs of my organization or community?’
While asking, reflecting upon, and responding to these questions, it is just as important
to notice from where our antiquated leadership perspectives and understandings arise.
Simply, from widespread assumptions—what we consider leadership myths.