Bruce Hiebert

Leadership: Why Everything You Know About It is Wrong

By: Bruce Hiebert | November 14, 2013 | 

LeadershipBy Bruce Hiebert, Ph.D.

You can’t help it, but almost everything you think you know about leadership is wrong.

Worse still, you can’t see the problem.

That’s because the problem is inside your head.

It’s your brain that’s misleading you.

Leadership: Learning From the Cavemen

Here is how it works: Your brain is wired to be highly sensitive to the exceptional. It is what kept your primate ancestors alive on the plains of Africa. As your ancestor stared out onto the plain, they looked for the singular strange waving in the grass because it predicted the arrival of a predator.

An inattentive ancestor was most likely to be food for a predator and thus not one of your progenitors, but the ones who became agitated at the sight of what might be a predator, and jumped up and down to warn the rest of the tribe, got to be the hero and not only survived, but prospered.

As a result, brains that startled easily and fixated on the exception became the norm. That is the brain design that was handed down to you, the brain that can’t see the leadership forest through the leadership trees.

Becoming easily startled and strongly fixated on strong leaders is therefore not only natural but highly survival-oriented. It’s the way your brain works, and you are stuck with it. But that does not mean it is right.

There are few human predators more dangerous than a leader. The human being who brings the most risk to any human group is the leader. Think about it, leadership is a natural human process for getting things done. All human groups need people who step forward to organize and direct.

Ideally, those who step forward have good ideas about how the work is best organized and what skills need to be learned. Those folks help us as groups to accomplish everything from childcare to healthcare to old-age security. We prosper because leaders direct our behavior.

The Problem With Leadership

While we place our trust in leaders, they are enabled to take advantage of us by siphoning off resources for themselves – and we let them get away with it. As long as we feel we are prospering, we are prepared to allow them to take more than their share.

However, that very faith and willingness to suspend our own judgment regarding the outcomes is a weakness. When we place our blind faith in leaders they can wreak complete havoc, starting wars, destroying the environment, and emptying our lives of meaning.

They become predators, and the rest of us become prey.

To us, it only makes sense that when we attend to leadership, we attend to leaders who either are or might become predators. We need to get very jumpy around and fixate upon those who may turn out to prey upon the human condition. That means carefully watching the highly competent, the manipulative, the charismatic, and the strong.

Those are the folk who put us ordinary human beings at risk and therefore they are the ones we must attend to.

So we do.

Everything we study in leadership class and leadership books is about those competent, manipulative, charismatic, and strong figures who are also dangerous to our well-being. We study what they do and we study how to be like them. Our brains tell us that is the only thing to do.

What True Leaders Can Do

Leadership is not just about strong, aggressive, human predators. It’s not about people who understand how to manipulate others into doing their bidding. Leadership is also about ordinary people, full of compassion and humility, who inspire us to do great works on our own. They subtly hint and carefully encourage us to become the best we can be.

They direct and push us in terms we embrace so whole-heartedly for ourselves that we never even realize someone was there pushing us in the first place.

These people are great leaders too, but they don’t get our attention because our brains just can’t see them. They aren’t dangerous.

The solution to this misunderstanding lies in our ability to reflect on the blind spots in our thinking. Our survival as a species depends on our agitation and specific focus as well as our ability to critically reflect on our perceptions and attend to the gestalt.

It isn’t heroic and it isn’t easy, but over time it leads to the accumulation of wisdom about our world, the wisdom that brought progress to our primate ancestors.

In the case of leadership we can become wise by looking at ordinary groups and their ordinary leaders. They aren’t the scary predator leaders upon whom we fixate so publicly, but they are the people who will teach us about successful group action.

To truly understand leadership we need to put to one side the very people who our brains tell us are the epitome of leadership, and look to those who are ordinary leaders in ordinary circumstances. Study them to learn true leadership.

That is the path of leadership wisdom.

Don’t forget that our fixation has survival value. We do need to understand those great public leaders so we can keep ourselves safe from them. But let’s not think they are teaching us anything about leaders; let’s remember that they are teaching us something about predators.

About Bruce Hiebert

Dr. Bruce Hiebert is an ethicist, historian, and demographer. By day he teaches in and manages the undergraduate programs for University Canada West. The rest of the time he muses about the social forces we live by, where they come from, and how we might do better.

  • Kat Krieger

    Man I love this post. Love.

    • BruceHiebert

      @Kat Krieger Thanks! What in specific stood out?

  • This is really cool stuff, Bruce, drawing the line from leadership to evolution. I hadn’t heard this before. I love it when I meet leaders who are self-effacing and humble. Surely there are more of them than the brash Richard Branson types.

    • BruceHiebert

      RobBiesenbach I’m not even sure Richard Branson is a leader. Does he provide the type of motivation that makes people want to do something? I would probably nominate him as a corporate predator. 
      I really love where some of the new neuropsychology stuff is going with regard to how human beings work together in groups. There are some real insights there that have profoundly shaken up my perspectives on what leadership is and how it functions. So our brain is attracted to Branson and then we try to make sense of him, but that causes us to neglect the good guys who don’t stand out the same way. The question we all need to be asking is, where does the motivation come from that really gets us going for the long-term? Who are those people? What is it that they do? That’s leadership that really works. But Branson?

      • BruceHiebert The insight about how human beings work together in groups is interesting. Can you talk more about that and what it means for the non-predator leaders?

        • BruceHiebert

          ginidietrich Under normal human conditions (outside of formal organizations) group members select leaders from among themselves, usually through informal processes, often involving trial and error. Groups are looking for mediator figures who can clarify group norms and help people do what people do best–accomplish collective goals. Under these conditions non-predator leaders are the norm. But organizations inherently encourage the development of predator leaders–leading to SOB bosses. It is just what happens when the discipline of organizational process supersedes group trial and error. (Head spinning? It happens to me a lot.)

        • BruceHiebert ginidietrich Let’s get Gini going on the Fiske… G, Bruce sent me down a rabbit hole of AWESOME with all this. I spent a lovely day in San Fran reading about relational models theories and geeking right out.

      • BruceHiebert Good point. Perhaps there are Capital L Leaders and lowercase leaders. Those who truly Lead per your analysis and those who in positions of leadership (or have it thrust upon them).

        • BruceHiebert

          I think we confuse three organizational roles, bosses, managers and leaders. They overlap as people, but they have distinctly different functions and any one person may be excellent at one or even two, but it is unlikely they are excellent at all three. Bosses direct and make critical decisions. Managers run processes and work with people. Leaders motivate. When we talk about leadership we want to talk about motivation, but even there we often speak out of hope as much as reality–E.G. I would really like my boss to be a leader so I call him/her a leader! So it gets confusing. But if we just focus on who gets us charged up then I think we begin to cut through the confusion to the heart of it and we begin to perceive that leadership is spread throughout organizations.

  • I love love love this post. So much THINKING!! Seriously, I geek out over this stuff.

    • BruceHiebert

      belllindsay So it sounds as if it gets you thinking too…

  • TendaiGarandi

    Brilliant article

    • BruceHiebert

      TendaiGarandi I’m glad you appreciated it. I’m not sure it is brilliant, but what it does do is poke at some of the gaping holes in contemporary leadership thought. I’m not the first to poke at them, but I might be the first to attach the problems to some of the current neuropsych research.
      My hope is to be helpful. If I were to push this line of thought further, what issues might be helpful?

  • Bruce, I love to read anything about leadership – even if it’s the wrong way to do it (cough, Steve Jobs, cough). A few years ago, I invested in a coach to help me refine my leadership skills and he’s been instrumental in teaching me exactly how you describe: “…full of compassion and humility, who inspire us to do great works on our own. They subtly hint and carefully encourage us to become the best we can be.”
    It’s certainly more comfortable for me to lead in that way – I’m not an aggressive person by nature – but it also means I get taken advantage of at times.
    Now it all makes sense…

    • BruceHiebert

      ginidietrich And I bet you have a tough time finding reading that supports your learned reality. Not only that, in gatherings of top figures, you are probably looked at as second rate. That aggressive nature you are missing is intrinsic to the cult of leadership. But if you focus on what you accomplish, you probably have staff who produce at 1.5 to 2x the industry norm, with lower turnover and a happier spirit, than those aggressive sorts can imagine (or might even approve of). Keep going! Change the perceptions!

      • BruceHiebert I forwarded this post to a friend of mine and he said, “I wish we’d stop referring to dictators as leaders. They’re managers at best.”
        To your point, I am definitely looked at as second rate. I also have the pretty girl conundrum. But that’s okay. It makes it that much more pleasurable when we win. And believe me, we win.

  • Payal Kumar

    I agree with what you have written Bruce, moreso since I have worked with this ‘predator-type-of-boss.’ What really used to amaze me was how other colleagues seemed unable to see through the fact that he was manipulating them for his own self aggrandisement!

    • BruceHiebert

      Payal Kumar Quite possibly they admired him/her. Power in organizations messes with people’s heads big-time. Sometimes we can’t even tell what was going on until we are in another organization. Our brains are not our friends when it comes to accurate leader perception.

      • Payal Kumar

        Yes they possibly admired him, but more in the sense of awe and fear rather than wonderment. In India we have a high power distance equation. Perhaps such an environment enables predator-type bosses to flourish, as no one dares question them.

        • BruceHiebert

          Payal Kumar The work of the anthropologist Alan Page Fiske is highly relevant here. He suggests that we have a natural tendency to lock into hierarchies, a tendency that is very culturally mediated, but present in everyone none-the-less. It’s a little scary how easily and quickly we fall into line behind such people.

  • This is an incredibly thoughtful post, BruceHiebert, and it’ll be sticking in my head for days. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone connect the dots between evolutionary biology and leadership, so kudos to you for that! 
    I suspect that nearly all of us here have, at some point in our careers, worked under predatory leaders. I know that I have, and those experiences serve as reminders of everything that I don’t want to be when I’m called to serve in a leadership capacity.

    • BruceHiebert

      jasonkonopinski My hope is that if ideas like mine are circulating in the back of your head, when you get to such positions it will nag at you and keep you from conforming to the destructive standard. But the pressure to conform is enormous. Good people can turn into predator leaders due to the pressures. (Run away!)(Or come and see me and let’s work on a plan.)

  • So fantastic to see your work here, Bruce! Since we started our discussion…from Heinlein to Hadfield to this piece…I have learned so much from you, and the others you have pointed me towards. Like most of us, I have worked for predatory bosses and experienced similar situations socially. I currently feel so fortunate to have examples of great leaders in my life- from watching Gini from afar to the incredible support I receive from my current boss to my family- that your post really gives me hope. I KNOW that these leaders do exist, and with some conscious decisions, we can start valuing what these leaders bring to the table. 
    And from our discussions, you know I love how you science this up good. Sometimes these “soft” skills get a little wishy washy and abstract for my nerd brain to comprehend. Breaking them down and slapping some science on them really resonates with me, and I believe, the other geeks that hang out here in the comments. Thank you for contributing to our ongoing discussion!

    • BruceHiebert

      RebeccaTodd Thanks for getting me connected! Love it! Love all the conversations. Great forum!
      Oddly enough, given my fields of study, I’m a hard-core empiricist. I want to see the numbers. I wanted to be an engineer early in my life, but couldn’t make myself jump through the hoops. Too interested in making sense of philosophy. Blame it all (both sides) on reading too much Heinlein early in life.

      • BruceHiebert Hah of course that does not strike me as odd. I need data for things to make sense. I came in extra early to run numbers only tangentially related to my early morning conference call, just because it made me feel better about what I already knew. 
        I’ve broken up my heavy dose of sci fi with Kundera this time… a good contrast to read philosophy from a “feeler” for a change.

    • RebeccaTodd I love you.

      • ginidietrich I love you! Even if you have little knowledge of toques and chi-hooa-hooas.

        • ginidietrich Damn. I should have said “little visibility in to toques and chi-hooa-hooas.”

  • susancellura

    BruceHiebert I am thrilled to meet you here and this is a wonderful, mind-spinning post. I was extremely fortunate to have a true leader early in my career. And, I can still reach out to him. Ironically, it does make me wonder, if, combined with experience, I get very annoyed with the predator bosses much more easily.

  • BruceHiebert

    ginidietrich Smart and pretty–sorry, but that does not compute in our primate brains. In fact it so does not compute that you can stand on the finish line and they won’t even see you as they pant and struggle to get there. (If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it, but in the business world if you do not conform to the model of success by definition you are not a success, even if your profitability just kills.)

  • BruceHiebert

    susancellura I’m sure your experience does make you less patient with predator bosses. It can’t help it. Once you see the alternative you can tell without difficulty that the emperor has no clothes.
    Well no, actually you can’t. Most of us who see the emperor without clothes start to doubt our own vision when we see everyone else bowing down and commenting on how well dressed the emperor is. Slowly that conformity worms its way into our brains. Eventually we get cataracts and only distantly remember that once it seemed different. We have to link arms, gossip, and otherwise help each other keep our brains accurate. Fight on!

  • BruceHiebert

    ginidietrich And they aren’t managers either. They are just dictators. Worse yet, the literature suggests that it works well enough to keep them in power, and sometimes they might even  succeed where nice folk can’t. Sometimes you have to throw the team overboard in order to save the ship. These are the folk happy to make that decision.

  • I wrote an entire ABCs of Leadership series, so I appreciate this post. Yes, I had some very assertive qualities pegged in my list, but I also had humility and compassion built in there, too.
    I also like those who can TEACH an organization to run effectively vs only succeeding through heroic, star-power efforts (or acting as a lone predator amongst prey).

  • BruceHiebert

    dbvickery Thanks! I would argue that heroism is the opposite of leadership–it demotivates the group. A leader as hero or star belongs to a group that stands and applauds, not a group that gets down to the work with a sense of competence and direction. A leader with humility and compassion is much more likely to belong to a group that feels energized to do its work to the best of its ability.

  • BruceHiebert dbvickery Agreed. Both heroes and micro-managers stunt the growth of organizations.

  • Pingback: psychic()

  • philipshaun

    share, this is a really quality post. In underlying objects theory I’d like
    to write like this too. Taking time and real effort to make a good article.

  • philipshaun

    there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers
    and starting a new project in a community in the same niche. Your blog
    provided us useful information to work on. You have done a extraordinary job!