Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja
Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership
New York: HarperBusiness, 2010
Around two decades ago, I met the worst leader ever.
He wasn’t my superior, as one might suppose, but my direct subordinate. I was in charge of a group of soldiers detailed to carry out an important technical task for an infantry battalion. He was a Second Lieutenant responsible for supporting one of the companies in that battalion. This unfortunate man was utterly out of his depth. He jumped like a scared dog when caught doing something stupid, but then couldn’t keep from doing stupid things. He made the same mistakes more than twice. One could see the gears of his weak, but clever, mind spinning so he could figure out how to get out of any sort of responsibility. He couldn’t communicate, inspire, reason for the good of the group, or come to a decision.
Had the enemy (yes, we were forward-deployed) attacked the area we were responsible for defending, he’d have been the first casualty. I discovered that in the event of an attack, the enlisted men under his command had a semi-serious plan to involve him in a fatal accident. I was in constant fear they’d carry out the plan even with no attack. He vexed me the entire tour. I couldn’t remove him from his position due to the circumstances, but I was able to mitigate his negatives to a degree. Had America not been under a “civil rights” occupation, nobody would have thought to commission him. It’s in part because of my experience with this fool I came to be a white advocate and think hard about leadership.
I’ve been in leadership in some form or fashion since I was an Assistant Patrol Leader in the Boy Scouts at the age of 12. A few years later — after a sequence of events I still find strange today — I wound up in charge of a group of convicted juvenile delinquents working at a lumber yard on the Western prairie over a summer. I also served in the Army as an officer, and in my later career have done some solid project leadership for various corporations. While I’ve really only been a small cog in very large machines, I’ve still been a small cog in charge of other small cogs, and I hope to convey any knowledge of leadership to my fellow white advocates. Leadership is actually tough to do, and it needs to be done in every business, school, political movement, social event, or other endeavor. The evolutionary aspects of leadership are explored by Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja in their ebook Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership.
Evolved to Lead and Follow
As the title suggests, the authors argue that social animals are evolved to lead and be led. At the individual level, leaders gain salary, status, and sex. In the harsh evolutionary environment at the dawn of man, early humans that figured out how to lead and how to follow a leader survived and reproduced. Those who didn’t left their bones bleaching under the sun in the Great Rift Valley.
Vugt and Ahuja’s Darwinian focus gives the book a dark edge. Leaders, they argue, often have the Dark Triad of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, although the psychopaths usually get removed upon discovery, and if psychopathy remains undiscovered, their group is often destroyed (such as the Peoples Temple ).
As far as the first two traits, they can be healthy despite the negative connotations of the words. Narcissism is healthy when used for self-reflection and self-improvement, and Machiavellianism is really nothing more than mastery of a known pattern of political schemes. Leaders are often extroverts and talkative. Communication is key; all good leaders I’ve met can tell a joke and laugh at one too. Good leaders can spin a good yarn.
There are several theories of leadership described in the book. The first described, the “Great Man Theory,” is obviously flawed in that the Great Men are often ordinary men who wind up leading in extraordinary times. Ulysses Grant is one such Great Man whose career would have been below-average had it not been for the Civil War. The rest of the theories described come down to the fact that leaders have some common traits that are likely inborn, and there are people who are always going to follow someone.
“Leadership,” write the authors, “shows the strongest correlation with extraversion, as would be expected based on the babble effect (the most talkative person in a group is often seen as the leader). Leadership also correlates positively with openness to new experience (e.g. being creative and adventurous) and negatively with neuroticism — who would want to follow an emotionally unbalanced person?”  
They go on to add that there is “no systematic relationship between leadership and being agreeable.” Niceness often gets in the way of accomplishing the mission, especially if one must deal with several problematic, stiff-necked followers. In addition to good oratory, leaders are often attuned to figuring out what their followers want and delivering it.
The Mismatch Hypothesis and Tall Men
Leaders have a look. It helps to be male, tall, fit, and somewhat older. The authors argue that followers look for a leader with these traits due to the early evolutionary environment of primitive man on the African savannah of the Great Rift Valley. The advantages that tall men have are that smaller men can become able followers without losing face, tall men are better in a fight, and tall men can break up a fight by standing over and pulling apart the belligerents. It also helps to have had some successful combat experience as well as charisma and communication skills.
However, people with these traits aren’t always up for the job. In particular, military men often fail spectacularly when thrust into a job with thorny political challenges. This situation is called the Mismatch Hypothesis.
One gets the sense that the Mismatch Hypothesis is a chapter designed to soften the blow to feminists that men are natural leaders while women are not. It is well known that tall, fit men don’t always make the best decisions, but poor leaders of that kind are often replaced by other tall, fit men.
I’ve found in my own experience that tall or short doesn’t really matter. The book’s weakest aspect is that it ignores the fact that we have an evolutionary history that includes several thousand years of civilization which is more complex than the Savannah of the Great Rift Valley. Rome, Charlemagne’s Empire, Parliament, etc. have had an impact on evolution too. Tall men can’t stomp and smash their way to the top in a physical sense any longer. It is a far better thing to be “tall” in wisdom and social skill than to just have a 6-foot frame.
According to Vugt and Ahuja, there are six types of natural leaders:
- The Warrior
- The Scout
- The Diplomat
- The Arbiter (i.e. peacekeeper)
- The Manager
- The Teacher
The above types are all self-explanatory and a good leader needs to use all the above traits at some point, though it’s pretty clear that specialization works. If you’re a Diplomat but not a Scout, find a Scout and use him.
Women as Leaders
The authors argue that the proverbial glass ceiling is not an unfair institutional barrier as much as a natural barrier based on the different reproductive strategies of men and women. Men need salary and status to get sex. Women must find loyal partners with salary and status so that they can rear their children safely. As a result, most women drop out of the hierarchy race. Additionally, women that work in competitive, high-stakes careers in the corporate world have greater fertility problems, so to increase reproduction, it’s better to get the young men on track for salary and status and introduce the young women to them.
Essentially, women of childbearing age in leadership roles is an inversion of the evolutionary order by which the group can best survive and reproduce. Women in leadership are thus “bossy” or “scolding” rather than wise or assertive. Aggressive leadership doesn’t work for women, because humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to reject female leadership. I’ll add that female leadership is often not very good in an objective sense. I have an anecdote as to a possible reason why below.
I’d add to that there are a few other challenges that women have in the leadership department. One key problem I’ve noticed is that women have less of a joke and storytelling ability. It’s a big disadvantage. Women can also fall into the trap of being overly sensitive, so much so that they can’t recognize when they are getting good advice. (I once had to recommend firing a woman for such a problem.)
Seduction vs. Mentorship
Another problem is that good lessons are learned in youth, and the youths of men and women are worlds apart. When men are young, they are often seen as problems and can get swept up into the judicial system at worst. They’re mostly ignored, but if lucky, they get mentorship from older men. On the other hand, young women don’t get ignored at all; and any “mentorship” they think they are getting from men is often a seduction attempt. This is a natural situation. Men are attracted to young women, and young women, if not initially attracted back, have at least a rational interest in evaluating such attention by the man. After all, she might get the chance to marry a rich widower.
Seduction packaged as mentorship is not mentorship. Young men get mentorship in its pure, ugly form. Quite possibly the best mentorship I’ve gotten in my career involved me being humiliated in front of 100-plus of my peers. As awful as it sounds, that event turned out to be more stressful than the day I lost two comrades to enemy action in Iraq a decade or so later. I’ve come to realize the event, embarrassing as it was, turned out to be an outstanding mentoring experience.
To explain, I was an Army ROTC Cadet at a weeklong “mini-camp” at an Army base in the Ozark Mountains. We were preparing to go to Advanced Camp on the West Coast, where we would be given six weeks of training and be evaluated on whether we’d be commissioned or not. On the first day of “mini-camp,” I was picked to be the Cadet Company Commander. Another Cadet, a young woman, was to be the Executive Officer (XO) — the second in command. At the time, I had very little experience.
The entire event was designed to be as difficult as possible. One had to transcribe an operations order read out loud by one of the instructors in a fast clip, (Pay attention Cadet! No time for repeats.), and then one had to give a more detailed order to the Cadet Platoon Leaders and ensure the Company was ready to go for the training the next day. While I transcribed the operations order with my hair on fire, the XO was whisked away for further instructions. I found out later that she was to be shown where the busses were to pick up the company and drive them from the barracks to the training site.
After delivering my order, I went to the XO. As I approached, she turned her body away, as though I was a guy at a single’s bar attempting to ask her what her “sign” was. Suffice to say, she didn’t disclose any information to me and she disappeared. I later discovered that she was made the XO to get a leadership “rating” and then was to be driven home that night. In other words, she was getting a free pass.
The rest of my 24 hours as Cadet Company Commander was a disaster. Finding the location of the busses in the morning turned out to be the first challenge. I and the Cadet First Sergeant also never figured out how many cadets there were in the company. One platoon lost some equipment which led to that platoon failing its mission, and I was heaped with abuse by the instructors every minute. I was given no mercy for the fact that the instructors knowingly told the person they were sending back critical information and she failed to disclose it to me. My rating was very low.
However, one really learns well from failure. I became an expert in gaining and keeping accountability of soldiers and equipment. I’d go on to be responsible for thousands of rounds of explosive munitions without losing a single cartridge. When several troops I was in command of disappeared prior to our departure for Iraq, I quickly discovered they were gone and carried out a plan to get the men back and still leave on time with all equipment. (The men in question wanted one last drink.) Most importantly, I discovered that the reason why we never got the right headcount was that there was a dummy as Cadet Squad Leader in the company, and he was fouling things up. Thereafter, I learned how important it is to find and remove (or mitigate) problem people.
The value of mentorship between myself and the attractive ginger Cadet with the free pass was like that of gold to ash. Young women are getting charm and seduction, not hard lessons. When I did get commissioned, my first serious job as a “green shave-tail” was as an assistant to the assistant investigating officer to a crackdown on officer-cadet fraternization. Apparently, many of the young female cadets got involved in sexual relationships with the Active Duty Officer and all sorts of drama ensued. (Major so-and-so took my virginity after I went to his pool to swim in it naked one evening! How did this happen?)
For Women Who Want to Lead
For women who still want to lead, all is not lost. Menopausal women are taken seriously, and older women cops are very good at calming down fighting men. Margaret Thatcher famously took voice lessons to sound less shrill and scolding. I’d even go on to add that I find women in our movement who embrace their feminine qualities pretty follow-worthy.
Traits of Followers
The first followers are the most important because followers make a person a leader. Vugt and Ahuja point to Barbara Kellerman’s work on followers. She argues that there are five types of followers:
- Isolates: Apathetic people.
- Bystanders: Take a neutral position towards the leader and his goals.
- Participants: Reasonably satisfied people who will put in the time when required.
- Activists: More highly engaged than participants.
- Diehards: Show an all-consuming dedication.
Part of good leadership is to figure out how to move as many followers up the scale as possible. A key thing to remember is to reward your followers. I’ll add all good leaders are also good followers. With good followers, one can take a hands-off approach to leadership, freeing followers up to pursue their own path to achieving the group’s goals.
If only leadership was a matter of doing X, Y, & Z found in a book. What happens when you do all that and you still have a problem employee? Leadership books never get into the tricky business of identifying and removing bad followers. You will run into them. They can wreck your day.
The best way to fire a person is to avoid hiring them in the first place. My rules for not hiring are the following:
- Don’t hire crooks.
- Don’t hire thin-skinned, neurotic people. Those who are thin-skinned are always cruel to others, cause problems, and can’t be corrected.
- Don’t hire “Ripley’s Androids.” That is to say, in the Alien series of movies starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Androids tended to be problems for the humans. If there is a category of people that have always caused you trouble, don’t hire them. I have several categories of “Ripley’s Androids.” It’s best to not disclose who your “Ripley’s Androids” are.
- Don’t hire for reasons of nepotism. The worst I’ve seen of this tends to be lesbians trying to get their partner on the payroll. It never goes well.
People should be fired for the following reasons:
- Failure to master the job.
The above are mostly self-explanatory and there is a spectrum to it. A guy having a bad day is not necessarily a mutineer. If there is a mutiny, though, there is normally only one mutineer. Find that person and remove him and things normally fall into place.
There are also several ways to fire people. One way is to unload them during a time of layoffs, and another is to not renew their contract. Sometimes a hard conversation and escort out the door are necessary. As always, talk the situation over with someone you trust before you fire someone. I’ve never fired anyone and not had someone say to me later they were waiting for that person to be fired. For people that aren’t all that bad, one can find an honorable off-ramp where their skills are better served elsewhere. Sometimes people just don’t fit in one spot, but work well in another.
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