Why some people lead while most choose to follow

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10 recommendations for a modern leader-follower relationship

Faith WoodIf you don’t have followers, then, let’s face it, you are not leading (regardless of your title).

Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership, first published in 2011. seeks to answer the question of not only why some people lead but why most choose to follow.

Taking an anthropological view of leadership styles through modern evolution, the authors – Mark Van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja – posed a few great, and still relevant, questions: Is our current love affair with charismatic leaders actually working? Does our ancestral preference for tall, chiselled men at the helm still ring true in a modern era which appears to require a more social and relationship-oriented approach to leadership? If we desire social emphasis, why then do we resist putting women in high-profile positions? Is gossip actually good for an organization?

leader-follower relationship

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The book has 10 recommendations for a modern leader-follower relationship:

Don’t overrate the romance of leadership. We celebrate leaders when things are going well and blame them when situations deteriorate. But in today’s modern world, leaders are usually figureheads who must work with committees and coalitions to effect change. Thus, they deserve less credit and less blame for their actions than our ancestral leaders ever did.

Find a niche and develop your prestige. Do you have a skill that can benefit the group? It helps to develop it and become somewhat indispensable in your workplace. The more you are relied on for your expertise, the more freedom and long-term stability you have.

Keep it small and natural. We work more cohesively in groups that do not exceed 150. This allows us to maintain our ancestral desire for tribal-like belonging. Apparently, our followers want to feel like they are part of a family unit.

Favour followers. Dominance, the authors point out, is a part of our primate history and there is always the risk that people in leadership positions will coerce and exploit their followers.

Practice distributed leadership. In ancestral times, leadership was fluid, situational and distributed. Leaders were chosen for roles in which they were most qualified. Bureaucracy has adjusted that over time and, in today’s modern world, often the fate of an organization rests on one person’s shoulders. The authors recommend a rethink of this type of top-down leadership. The burden should be shared among qualified individuals. Followers need to feel they can aspire to higher-level positions.

Mind the pay gap. We have entered an era where leaders need to curb the culture of excessive pay and bonuses. When institutions favour leaders at the cost of followers, something has to give eventually, the authors write. Many investors refuse to support organizations where the disparity between pay is too immense. We expect some perks for our top leaders but mind the gap.

Look for leaders from within. We used to appoint leaders from within the clan for their skills and talent. Today, leaders are appointed by the top echelon, who often favour those who appear like-minded. This hiring style often undermines the group and prevents skill development and growth within the followers. Keep it up, and you may find you are leading no one.

Watch out for nepotism. When you appoint CEOs based on family bloodlines, you set up your organization for perceived and real corruption. Natural leaders should recruit people with the best qualifications rather than relying on a small circle of relatives and friends.

Avoid the dark side. Domination is part of our ancestral coding and is often the swiftest method of gaining compliance from our subordinates. However, it is often more advantageous for a natural leader to seek consensus within a group and avoid the tendency to dominate as primates do.

Don’t judge a leader by their cover. We have to understand the psychology behind who we choose to follow and under what conditions.

And as for gossip: the authors believe you should not prevent it. Flaws within an organization are often revealed through this primal activity. Listen to it and adjust your style and approach when gossip proves a point.

Perhaps it is time to rethink our instinctual inclination toward leadership. Choosing the right person for the job may take a little more evolution in these modern times.

Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.

For interview requests, click here.


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