The concept of ‘leader’ is hardwired into our brains.  Our life experiences, first with parents then teachers then managers, instil in us the unquestioned concept that social structures need a leader. 

This paper builds on some of the concepts outlined in my previous post, entitled ‘Trapped in an evolutionary time-warp: how human genetics sabotage modern organisations’ .

The management literature and its associated supports (MBA’s, coaching, etc) are besotted with the notion of ‘leaders’ and ‘leadership’.  An increasing number of people aspire to positions of leadership.  Yet these aspirations, which might be beneficial for individuals, may be anything but beneficial for the workplace and society at large.  Evolutionary psychology explains why.

Evolutionary psychology is a form of reverse engineering.  While engineers design a machine to do something, evolutionary psychology examines what people do to understand their primary purpose.  Examples: (i) Males, once the traditional hunters, retain their prehistory ability to focus on a single task for long periods.  (ii) The masculine trend towards competition, hierarchy and social dominance is a way of showcasing, to females, desirable genetics.  Females tend to prefer dominant males.

Of greater interest are those characteristics pertaining to leadership.

The leader/follower relationship

It makes little sense to regard someone marooned alone on an island as a leader.  It is equally illogical to regard someone as a leader when no one is following them.  So, by logic, a leader is someone who has followers.

It is followers who determine who their leader will be.  And these followers are projecting onto another person unconscious (or sometimes conscious) needs that the followers have that they expect someone else to fulfil.  And these needs fall into three categories, resulting in three types of leaders that followers are seeking.

1. The legitimate or nominal leader, a person who we aspire to be like; one who represents us to the outside world and speaks and acts on our behalf. The legitimate leader is often, though not always, elected, though, in the workplace, leaders are more likely to be appointed.  The role carries with it social and moral authority.

2, The effective leader, someone with the acknowledged skills to deal with the problem(s) that confront us. The effective leader is context specific and fluid.  If our car breaks down, it is the mechanic.  If we experience a health emergency, it is those with the necessary medical knowledge.

3. The empathic leader, someone who is in tune with us emotionally, who shares our anger, joy or pain and upon whose shoulder we can weep when we are hurting.

Now a moment’s thought will lead to the conclusions that (a) these are the three roles parent fulfil for their children, (b) leaders are appointed by followers, not by themselves, (c) all followers do not necessarily share the same projections towards their leader at the same time, (d) among a group of people, each will not necessarily choose the same leaders, (e) leadership is gifted by followers who grant authority to another and is always a temporary state of affairs, able to be withdrawn at any time, and (f) it is unlikely most aspiring leaders will have, or demonstrate, the three sets of attributes that followers seek. 

It is inevitable then that our ‘leaders’ will sometimes disappoint us.  Sometimes a leader will act in ways that are contrary to our values or aspirations, so they fail as our legitimate leader through loss of moral authority.  Sometimes our leader will not have the solution to the complex problems that confront us, so they fail as our effective leader.  Sometimes our leaders do not demonstrate towards us their empathy for our circumstances, so they fail as our empathic leader.

Further, in organisational settings, many employees would not willingly ‘follow’ their manager if they were free not too.  There is generally more compliance than there is commitment.  By the above definitions, many managers are not ‘leaders’ in the eyes of their employees.  Yes, my manager is my ‘legitimate’ leader, though that person would not necessarily have been my personal choice.  Sometimes my manager is also my ‘effective’ leader in that she/he has knowledge and skills greater than mine in relation to my current job.  Often, this is not the case, since I was hired for my knowledge and skill.  And sometimes my manager demonstrates a degree of empathy in relation to my work and personal circumstances.  Yet, as my previous post indicates, this third characteristic is quite rare, since paying attention upward rather than downward has a greater payoff for my manager within a hierarchical context.  Is it any wonder that employee dissatisfaction with their managers is often high?

In addition to the categories of leader and follower, there is a third category of people: interdependent adults.  They have no need to position themselves as a leader, nor do they act as followers, projecting their needs onto a third party. Rather they negotiate their lives through constantly changing regimes of mutual interdependence and civility.

Leadership and Innovation

Over a decade ago, I was commissioned by the Federal Government to determine those characteristics that would support innovation in small rural communities.  Why is it that some small communities thrive while others languish?  One of the most surprising research findings was that the towns that are dying report having the most leaders; the towns that are thriving report very few.  In part, it was the ‘legitimate leaders’ that were stifling small communities.  It is the most talented citizens, those who feel suppressed by the community ‘leaders’, who are most likely to leave.

Evolutionary psychology explains that people who aspire to positions of leadership do so because they are often unconsciously driven by a need for power, defined as the pursuit of status and influence.  Need for power is inversely correlated with creativity, a precursor to innovation.  Further those leaders with a need for power tend to dampen the creative sparks of their followers.  While this may be functional in highly predictable environments, it is dysfunctional in turbulent environments, the very environments where creativity is essential for survival.

In the workplace, managers are more inclined to ‘tell’ when talking to subordinates than to ‘ask’; subordinates are more inclined to ‘ask’, not to ‘tell’.  These patterns of communication, asking upward and telling downward are repeated at every level of hierarchy.  So observations from the middle ranks about opportunities or threats, the position from which they are more frequently spotted, are unconsciously blocked from flowing upward to those who can authorise an appropriate response.  Resilience is unconsciously thwarted.

Birth order

All humans are a product of their genetics and their environment.  Whereas our genes provide options, our environment shapes choices.  This is particularly evident among siblings.  In early childhood, each sibling develops behaviours and strategies for (a) getting out of childhood alive, and (b) reducing competition with other siblings.

The result is that sibling differ from each other in multiple ways (including personality and career aspirations) and that patterns of differences within families are patterns of similarity across families.  For example, the patterns of difference in a family of three siblings in Australia will be substantially mirrored in a similar family in Brazil or Borneo, China or Chile.

One of the sources of learning for children is each other.  Children notice which of the strategies that their siblings and/or peers use seem to be successful.  So these strategies get copied and internalised.  The implication is that siblings from large families acquire a greater repertoire of life strategies.  Yet, each sibling still retains its own preferred strategies and hence personality.

My doctoral research examined 379 families of three adult children, where each respondent provided, among other data, adjectives that described each.  The most frequently mentioned descriptors are shown below.  Note, these are broad patterns with many exceptions. 




—  Extravert

—  Caring/Responsible

—  Conservative

—  Dominant

—  Sporty

—  Leader

—  Uptight/anxious


—  Introvert

—  Independent

—  Capable

—  Generous

—  Risk tolerant

—  Inquisitive

—  Unreliable

—  Creative

—  Easy-going/laid-back/lazy

—  Not academic

—  Gentle

—  Resourceful

—  Sociable

—  Self-centred/selfish

—  Strong-willed/stubborn


Of particular interest is the word ‘leader’ which was offered by firsts to describe themselves.  It was not offered by firsts to describe either the middle or the last.  Nor was it used by either the middle or last to describe the first.  And none of the respondents used the descriptor ‘follower’ for themselves or others.  People generally do not aspire to be followers, though many, commonly firsts, aspire to be leaders.  That the eldest child would see themselves as ‘leader’ is perfectly understandable since it matches their childhood experience of guiding and caring for younger siblings.

Other characteristics more common in firsts in comparison to their siblings include:

(a)     Greater need for power, leading to the desire to influence others.

(b)     More materialistic – the pursuit of possessions intended to impress.

(c)     More conservative – a tendency to avoid risk and to honour the past.

(d)     More conscientious - more responsible, ambitious, organized, and academically successful.

(e)     Quicker to anger.

(f)      More competitive – a relationship mental model of win/lose, rather than win/win.

(g)     Greater respect for authority.

 In contrast, later-borns are characterised by:

-          More tender-minded, accommodating, and altruistic.

-          More exploratory, unconventional, independent and tolerant of risk.

-          More collaborative.

-          More creative.

Evolutionary psychology explains why these characteristics are functional for the particular birth order in which they are more commonly manifest.  Am happy to provide supporting evidence to any reader who is interested.

Further, when asked which of the following three roles each of the siblings would most prefer, firsts, on average, were perceived to prefer managerial/executive roles that would enable them to influence others and showcase status; middles were perceived to prefer technical/professional roles that would enable them to demonstrate (mainly to themselves) their own competence; lasts were perceived to prefer administrative, creative or support roles that provided service to others.

Here, from the literature, are occupations more commonly held by each of those three birth-order positions.  And yes, of course there are exceptions.




—  Executives

—  Army officers

—  Doctors

—  Teachers

—  Orchestra conductors

—  Astronauts

—  Technicians,

—  Artisans

—  Musicians

—  Explorers

—  Entrepreneurs

—  Diplomats

—  Mediators

—  Journalists

—  Nurses

—  Veterinarians,

—  Artists

—  Musicians

—  Therapists

—  Counsellors

—  Comedians


Evolutionary psychologist, Frank Sulloway, investigated the catalysts for great leaps in scientific thought over the past five centuries.  To his dismay, he found that the keepers of the old schools of thought, the revered scientific leaders, were overwhelmingly only children or the eldest in their families.  Those who came up with break-through insights were almost all latter-borns.  And the likelihood of this finding being a statistical error is less than 1 billion to 1.

Our changing social fabric

The world, as we know it, is changing.  Our political world has seen a shift to the right, towards self-interest and away from compassion and environmental sensitivity.  Our corporate world has seen a decline in ethics (eg.  Banking Royal Commission), an increased interest in profit at the cost of people, an increase in schoolyard and workplace bullying and in workplace stress.

Some of these increases might be attributable to an increase in media mention as opposed to an actual increase, though this is probably only part of the picture.  Another cause is as invisible as it is massive; the decline in the average number of births per fertile woman

Among baby-boomer mums, the average was three to four children.  The societal consequence of higher fertility is greater diversity of personalities.  No one birth-order position was ever in the majority.  This has now changed.  With an average number of offspring in 1980 of 1.9 (down from 3.45 in 1960 and falling steadily since), for the first time in human history, today’s adults who are only-children and first-borns are in the increasing majority.  There is less diversity of personality in our social fabric.  Compared to past decades and centuries, society is no longer producing middle-borns and is producing a smaller percentage of last borns.

Refer back to the previous paragraphs on birth order and reflect upon what we might see more of and less of within our society and our workplaces as a result of this declining fertility.

It is appropriate here to also include a description of only children.  Like firstborns (which in one sense they are), they are generally achievement oriented and conform to parental authority, because these attributes are esteemed by parents.  They tend to share many of the characteristics of first-borns, yet, unlike firstborns, they are not as anxious, since their status within the family unit is secure and has not been challenged.

Consequences for our workplaces

With lower levels of average fertility in society, the diversity of personalities within the workforce is narrower.  Drawing upon the material above and from my previous post, we might therefore expect to see:

-          An ever-increasing interest in the topic of leadership and the aspirations to be one.

-          Greater emphasis on personal remuneration and the pursuit of status difference.

-          Less workplace collaboration and greater interpersonal competition.

-          An increase in workplace stress.

-          A greater sense of self-entitlement.

-          An increase in workplace bullying.

-          A decline in creativity and innovation.

[Please note:  I am not saying that all first-borns will demonstrate these characteristics.  I am saying that these characteristics are more common in first-borns than latter-borns.  And with a greater proportion of first and onlies in the workforce (and society generally) we can only expect the manifestation of these characteristics to increase.]

Are these increasingly destructive consequences within our workplaces inevitable?  I contend they are, unless we choose to do something about them.  The need to do so is more urgent than ever since the trends described above can only increase as fertility declines.

In my previous post, I talked of the desirability of collaboration over hierarchy.  Anthropology offers some salutary lessons.  For example, one of the most enduring cultures on the planet, with a 60,000 year history, is that of the Australian aborigine.  My limited understanding is that this culture had no single leader; rather it was/is a culture of carefully crafted interdependencies and responsibilities.  Instead of being vested within an individual, leadership was/is distributed across a number of respected elders. Further, social functioning depended upon each individual contributing to the well-being of others.

Tribal elders embodied wisdom (effective leadership) and empathy (having life experiences very similar to those their younger generations are experiencing).  Deference to these elders was natural and functional.  It was also predicated upon the tribal environment being stable over time, thereby ensuring relevance to the wisdom and empathy of the elders.

Today, the context of modern organisations is anything but stable, yet we are still hard-wired to create systems that expect deference to people who position themselves as ‘leader’.

Yet as the natural world examples below show, collaboration is more enduring than competition and hierarchy.

So do we need leaders?

Yes and no.  Outside of our workplace, we each seem to manage our lives quite adequately without the need for a leader.  We can live our independent lives relatively unimpeded by daily instructions from an authority figure.  Does it need to be any different at work?

There are a number of non-human social systems that also function without a leader.  Coral reefs, colonies of ants, hives of bees, flocks of birds and schools of fish are examples.  Leadership is replaced by a shared set of rules for behaviour.

These rules are: (i) diversity of participation, (ii) independence of contributions, (iii) comparison of ideas (peer review), (iv) time for all ideas to be considered, (v) a means of reducing options, and (vi) total transparency.

It is the rules that provide the necessary coordination.

A human equivalent is traffic systems.  Motorists operate under the same behavioural guidelines that govern fish, ants and bees.  People can travel on the roads quite safely without having a police officer sitting beside the driver giving instructions.  It is the shared set of behaviours that provide the leadership.  And accidents occur if one individual violates those shared guidelines.  Similarly, air traffic systems are a clear example of carefully crafted interdependencies and responsibilities.

And it is just as possible to create a self-organising system within the workplace.  It requires a shared vision and a clearly understood system that coordinates interdependencies.  We may periodically need ‘an effective leader’, a position that is granted by followers, is context specific and is temporary.  For example, in the airline industry, it is the control tower which is temporarily granted the role of effective leader.

Gandhi was once asked if he would put his signature to an international Charter of Human Rights.  He refused, apparently replying: ‘Show me a Charter of Human Responsibilities and I’ll be the first to sign.’

It is interdependent responsibilities that underpin the resilience of social insects.  It is/was interdependent responsibilities that render viable indigenous societies.  Ants and bees regulate their collectives through pheromones.  Humans can regulate their self-organising systems through their conversations.  By using a conversation system based on participative bureaucracy, collaboration can replace hierarchy.  Responsibilities and interdependencies can replace self-serving individualism.  Adults can replace leaders and followers.  Systems and processes can replace top-down instructions.  As a result, morale, commitment, responsiveness and innovation will increase; workplace stress and staff turnover will decrease.  Our workplaces will become joyful and resilient.

 Ian Plowman, PhD

30th June 2018.

Author:  Ian Plowman is a consultant, facilitator and social researcher with over 30 years’ experience as an organisational psychologist.  He works with individuals, organizations, industries, communities and government agencies.  He holds a Doctorate in Management (researching blockages to innovation), an Advanced Master’s Degree in Business Administration, a Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology and an Honours Degree in Clinical Psychology.  Ian helps clients to develop skills and awareness to remove blockages and raise their levels of creativity and innovation.

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