The Evolutionary Science of Leadership
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A pop-psych effort at identifying the traits of a leader, in which nature trumps nurture.

What makes a good leader? Write van Vugt (Psychology/VU University Amsterdam) and journalist Ahuja, the good leader has characteristics that address our latent primate selves, the ones that fear snakes and spiders even though there are countless more dangerous things in our environments. We are evolutionarily adapted as humans to live in groups, and most of us require leaders or bosses to get us pointed in the right direction. “We crave a sense of belonging,” write the authors, “and if we don’t find it within our own families, we will seek out other collectives, such as cults or gangs, which can offer it.” Of course, Hobbes and Gibbon were saying this well before Darwin came along, and the strongest insights of this jargon-laden book are derived from more traditional branches of psychology. Still, it proves useful in thinking about our hereditary characteristics—that propensity to belong to a group, for instance, which so often, given dysfunctional families, leads to membership in a quasi-family structure such as a street gang. The notion of the mismatch accounts for many failures of leadership, for “we often select leaders on the basis of physical and psychological traits that once would have served those small, ancestral, egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups [of the evolutionary past] well, but which are of less importance in today’s large-scale, fast-paced environments.” Thus Hitler, who appealed to the gibbering chimp in us, and thus John McCain’s defeat in the last presidential election, for we read him as too old and too martial to bring change and peace. Desmond Morris beat this book to many of its punches two generations ago, but van Vugt and Ahuja provide some fresh material in the practical-applications section that closes the narrative.

Of use to business readers and self-help types comfortable with Darwinian notions—to say nothing of Machiavellianism.

Pub Date: Jan. 18th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-196383-4
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Harper Business
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2010


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