Why today’s leaders are no different from yesterday’s
The Nature of Human Nature

Article By

Ryne Sherman
Ryne Sherman
Ryne A. Sherman is Chief Science Officer at Hogan Assessment Systems. Prior to taking this role he was an Associate Professor of Psychology at Texas Tech University and Florida Atlantic University. In 2016 Dr. Sherman was named a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science and in 2018 he received the SAGE Young Scholars Award. He has authored more than 60 scientific papers and book chapters on the topic of personality psychology.

A host of workplace surveys over the past 30 years have returned one consistent message: the base rate of effective leadership is shockingly low. For example, a 2019 survey by Monster showed that 80% of all US employees cry at work, primarily due to the toxic work environment created by interactions with bosses and coworkers. Gallup reports in hundreds of surveys that 65-75% of US workers say the worst and most stressful aspect of their lives is their immediate boss. A recent survey of the UK public found that 22% of people “hate their boss,” 52% name their boss as their main cause of dissatisfaction, 20% say they would give up a pay raise if someone would fire their boss, and an astonishing 12% say that they have actively fantasized about killing their boss. In a similar survey, 65% of the US workforce said they would prefer firing their boss to receiving a pay raise. Put another way, it is fair to estimate that 60-75% of current leaders are ineffective and failing in their roles.  

Drawing on evidence from anthropology, biology, history, and personality psychology, I argue that human leaders have remained psychologically unchanged for the past 12,000 years.

Contrast this set of findings with the fact that there is no shortage of guidance and research on leadership effectiveness. A moment’s perusal of the leadership section of a bookstore, or Amazon, reveals hundreds of titles purporting to create more effective leaders, teams, and organizations. Yet, despite all this accumulated wisdom, leadership remains largely poor, incompetent, and ineffective. Why are today’s leaders, on average, so ineffective? I believe the answer to this question is rooted deeply in human history. Drawing on evidence from anthropology, biology, history, and personality psychology, I argue that human leaders have remained psychologically unchanged for the past 12,000 years.  

To begin it is useful to ask ourselves, “why does leadership exist in the first place?” From biology, we know that leadership is universal among group living species: ant colonies and beehives have queens; chicken flocks have pecking orders; herds of cows have lead cows; wolf packs have alpha males and females; chimpanzee troops have alpha males and females, and so do human societies. Why is this the case? But before answering this question, it first useful to answer another question: why do these species live in groups?  

From an evolutionary biology perspective, the answer is simple. These species live in groups because doing so confers survival benefits compared to isolated living. Consider the individual human. By itself, hardly an intimidating creature: no sharp claws or teeth, not particularly strong, and not very fast. Among other animals in the animal kingdom, the individual human is squishy and makes for a tasty snack. In groups however, humans have proven themselves to be the most powerful, deadly, and invasive species on Earth. Living in groups turns the individual human from something relatively pathetic, to something utterly deadly.  

But one cannot simply put humans into a group and expect results (see the Detroit Lions football team or US Congress). Like ants, bees, and chimpanzees, human groups are most effective when they are coordinated and organized. This is where leadership comes in. Every group needs someone to signal when it is time to act, divide labor efficiently, resolve internal disputes, and make critical decisions for the group.  

Every significant accomplishment in human history has been done via coordinated group effort. Returning then to the question of why leadership exists, the answer is to solve the problem of coordinating and organizing group effort.  

A group’s ability to coordinate and organize into a collective effort is critical to its success

All other things being equal, a group’s ability to coordinate and organize into a collective effort is critical to success and survival. The anthropological record indicates that competition among our prehistoric ancestors was fierce: genocide and cannibalism were common occurrences. Obviously, if your group was killed and eaten, your genetic code was eliminated from the collective human gene pool. Our prehistoric ancestors who failed at group coordination left our genetic chain thousands of years ago. In evolutionary terms, this is known as a strong selection pressure. Groups who could not coordinate—groups who did not have effective leaders—did not survive.  

Let’s summarize the major points so far. First, humans live in groups because groups confer survival benefits. Second, coordination and organization are key to group success and survival. Third, the primary function of leadership—at least in human prehistory —is the coordination of collective group efforts. As a result, the critical question for any group is: who shall lead?  

Here again, our prehistoric ancestors had an answer to this question. Starting from at least 50,000 years ago, our human ancestors lived in nomadic groups. The groups followed animal herds, hunting and gathering for sustenance. Because the groups were nomadic, it was impossible for any individual to accumulate wealth beyond what he or she could carry. The leader of the group, usually an older individual, was selected based on a track record of good judgment (the anthropological record shows no evidence of a class system in these societies).  

It was the leader’s job to coordinate hunts, settle internal disputes, make decisions about the next move, and, on occasion, to coordinate warfare against another group. Human life went on like this for around 38,000 years, before the advent of agriculture began a steady shift towards more stationary settlements. The so-called Neolithic revolution was a major change for human affairs. First, crops generated a more reliable and larger food source, providing clear survival advantages for our ancestors. Second, because crops require frequent tending, but do not roam like animals, it was more sensible for our ancestors to settle near areas where crops grew. Third, living in settlements made it possible for individuals to accumulate more than an armful of wealth. Fourth, and this is most critical, the land where crops grew became valuable: whoever owned the land and the crops owned the primary means of survival. And, whoever owned the means of survival had a great deal of power and influence over the rest of the group.  

The result is a fundamental change in leadership. Instead of being primarily about coordinating group effort, leadership also became about the accumulation of wealth, power, and influence. To be sure, crops—particularly at this time—required a substantial amount of human effort to grow and maintain, so the leader still needed to coordinate group efforts. But the ability to amass large stores of food and to own the land created alternative motives to leadership and, as we shall see, class divisions in society.  

After the Neolithic revolution, most societies developed four classes: a ruling class who owns most of the wealth (e.g., kings, emperors, shoguns), a noble class who supports the ruling class (e.g., smaller landowners, lords, daimyos, religious leaders), a warrior class who protects the ruling and noble classes and hopes to gain membership into the noble class (e.g., knights, samurai, soldiers), and a lower class who does most of the labor (e.g., peasants, serfs, merchants, artisans). For the past 12,000 years, human history can be largely be characterized in terms of competition between rival ruling classes (i.e., warlords: Alexander, Caesar, Cao Cao, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Genghis Khan, Henry VIII, Napoleon, Stalin, etc.).  

After the Neolithic revolution, leadership became a source of individual power, influence, and wealth

While the industrial revolution of the late 1700s, and the rise of the merchant class, created the foundations of the modern organizations we see today, it is still easy to see the outlines of this class system in today’s corporations: owners at the top, a noble class of executives, a class of middle managers aiming to make the noble class someday, and a large body of workers who support the basic functions of the business.  

At this point, you might ask yourself what any of this has to do with leadership? The answer is everything. Recall that prior to the Neolithic revolution, the leader was (effectively, if not officially) elected on the basis of experience, good judgment, and the need to effectively coordinate a collective effort. After the Neolithic revolution, the leader was largely selected on the basis of genetic relatedness, class membership, or in a great many cases by force of will. In other words, prior to the Neolithic revolution, leadership was a resource for the group.  

After the Neolithic revolution, leadership became a source of individual power, influence, and wealth. So, I now return to the question with which I began this essay: why are today’s leaders, on average, so ineffective? The primary cause of modern leadership ineptitude is the way leaders are chosen. Unlike our prehistoric ancestors, most businesses today choose leaders based not on their experience, expertise, good judgment, and ability to coordinate a group effort, but rather based on office politics and nepotism. In this regard, selection into the highest ranks of today’s corporations is akin to the politics of the Emperor’s court. It is worth pointing out however, that leadership selection based on politics would not be so problematic if one’s ability to climb the corporate ladder was also associated with leadership effectiveness. Unfortunately, it is not.  

The primary cause of modern leadership ineptitude is the way leaders are chosen

In one of the best studies of modern management, Fred Luthans and colleagues gathered extensive behavioral and performance data on 457 managers working in several organizations over a four-year period. At the end of the study, they identified two groups of high performers: (1) a group of managers who quickly rose through the ranks, receiving promotion after promotion and (2) a group of managers whose teams performed well. While there was some degree of overlap between the two groups, they were relatively independent. They also found those in the first group—the highly emergent leaders—spent their time networking and attempting to climb their way to the top. Those whose teams performed well—the highly effective leaders— spent their time working with their teams.  

In our own data at Hogan Assessments, we have identified a personality profile associated with excellent networking abilities and social/political skill. People who fit this profile are substantially more likely to be in executive and other top leadership roles. Additionally, we have identified a personality profile associated with excellent team building and team performance.  

People who fit this profile are substantially less likely to be in top leadership roles. In other words, today’s corporate leaders are, more often than not, selected on the basis of a political process, a process that often has little to do with performance or results.  

This leads then to the obvious question: what is the cure for the problem of leadership selection that yields such poor leadership results? The answer is a better selection method. At present there are typically three sources of data one can rely on to make judgments about who should be promoted to the leadership role: supervisor ratings, peer ratings, and subordinate ratings. Our data indicate that supervisors tend to rate employees based on how much they like them, how few problems they bring up, and how well they advance the boss’s agenda. Peers, on the other hand, tend to rate promotion candidates based on how much of threat they perceive them to be, particularly in terms of competition for that promotion. Subordinates rate such candidates based on their actual performance as leaders.  

In other words, if you want to know how a person will perform in a leadership role ask their subordinates. Unfortunately, despite the logical soundness of this advice, most organizations continue to select leaders primarily on supervisor judgments, rarely asking or heavily discounting what subordinates have to say. This plays right into the hands of people who are skilled at corporate politics, leading to a constant churn of ineffective leaders.  

Ultimately, organizations would be wise to learn from our pre-historic ancestors. Leaders should be chosen based on their ability to build an effective team, treat people fairly, resolve conflict, and exercise good judgment for the betterment of the group, and not their own personal wealth, power, and glory.  

Subordinates know the answer, if anyone is willing to listen.   

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