Evolution and leadership

Ever noticed how a few people manage to attain high station with few exceptional skills, other than a dogged refusal to admit mistakes? Psych studies have proven that most people value consistency more than accuracy in a leader. So maybe there’s an evolutionary explanation.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposes evolutionarily stable states (ESS), in which subgroups within a species tend to have certain characteristics. These characteristics, he asserts, are adaptive as long as they do not occur in too large a proportion of the overall population. Whether such evolution occurs at a genetic or social level, it has implications for human behavior.

I assert an evolutionary environment (social or genetic) that produces the kind of leader you think you hate, but actually you love: the guy who never, ever admits weakness or error. Examples are everywhere, from Carly Fiorina to George W. Bush. But the best one is Saddam Hussein.

When Saddam emerged from an underground hole to find himself surrounded by hundreds of armed U.S. troops, what did he say? Not “Please don’t kill me.” Not “Could it be that I’ve gone too far?” No, his documented response was, “I am the president of Iraq. I am prepared to negotiate.”

This goes comedically far beyond overplaying one’s hand. Yet it’s not unusual among alpha males. I assert Saddam, like many autocrats both political and corporate, reached and attained his position by either having or developing a blindness to personal weakness. And others followed him because the brain has evolved to view self-assurance as a reasonable proxy for effectiveness.

It’s easy to see an evolutionary path that would end up here. We know that there exist evolved pseudo-reasoning heuristics in the human brain. This evolved pseudo-reasoning has been shown to explain why people tend to overvalue lottery tickets, for example. You can see how there might evolve a heuristic that equates a leader’s self-confidence with one’s own safety, thereby increasing offspring. You can see how this tendency might increase the more fearful a follower becomes.

But if this were to evolve, you can also see how a parasitical ESS could evolve: a subgroup that evolves no skill except blind self-confidence, which it uses to gain and retain a leadership role, thereby increasing offspring.

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