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.

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.

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