The secrets of leadership from the savannah


IT’S refreshing in a genre filled with pseudo-science and sweeping, half-baked generalisations to come across something that makes a genuine stab at being reasoned. Selected – written by a professor of psychology and a former Times science writer – is head and shoulders above most management books. It argues that we can learn about leadership from evolutionary biology, the science which looks for evolutionary explanations for our behaviour. Human leadership evolved on “the savannah”, but the leadership structures we developed there do not necessarily fit the modern world.

It all sounds reasonable, but on closer inspection is a bit dodgy. For the argument to make sense, the authors have to show that our social structures confer an evolutionary benefit. And so they write: “The ultimate evolutionary aim is reproductive success, which must be achieved through sex, which means catching the eye of sexual partners, which means being a man of status. And how is status signified today? Through salary.” Which is funny, because the last time I watched the Jeremy Kyle Show it was awash with jobless men who had oodles of offspring. People with higher salaries are leaving it later to have children, and having fewer.

Elsewhere they accept that it is being part of a successful group that matters – one with a successful leader. But that means that you don’t have to be the leader to reproduce lots, just to know one. And the argument that we go for “strong, lantern-jawed men” as leaders is not borne out by reality. Two of the most powerful people on the planet are Chinese premier Hu Jintao and Angela Merkel. Leaders are chosen for all sorts of complicated reasons, some social, some biological. The authors do acknowledge this, but they still stick to their theory.

Can Selected teach us to be better leaders? Their argument suggests that leaders are born and not made – if you aren’t the right sort, then you can’t become one. Nevertheless, they explain that there are certain things you must do to be a better leader. This is the book’s least original section, arguing that you should carve out a niche, not hog power, avoid nepotism, and never be nasty. Interestingly, though, they also point out the benefits of being a follower. Having a good leader is good for you.

The book ends with a claim that high CEO pay is destructive. A nice liberal conclusion, but if good leaders help your love life, what is too high a price?