When you think of leadership, what first comes to mind? Your country’s Prime Minister? Your boss? Maybe even your parents?
We often consider leadership to be a man-made concept, but leadership skills have been part of evolution for millions of years, across a wide number of different species.
Wolf packs are well documented to have their own social structures and rules of conduct, with many studies suggesting that each pack has their own ‘alpha’ male and female, none of whom had any professional leadership and management training.
Similarly, most lion prides will have a dominant male, who will spend his life protecting his lionesses and their young cubs.
Leadership skills have been crucial in allowing so many species to evolve and thrive. But what really defines a leader, and why do most species need a decision-maker rather than a democracy?
King of the corporate jungle
We’ve all grown up with an idealistic understanding of how lion prides operate (largely thanks to The Lion King), with a dominant leader who keeps his (and occasionally her) pride in check, making sure they work as a team to ensuring they all get fed.
A top lion will show leadership, courage and decisiveness, inspiring the pride to continue despite whatever brutal environments they have found themselves in.
We, as leaders in business, can learn a lot about leadership from lions by examining their behaviour both individually and within their social groups.
Their leadership can be contested of course. A young, ambitious lion will stand up to the leader once in a while and the leader will have to make a decision – to fight for their seat, or to flee and risk losing everything they have worked towards. With lions and humans, leadership and respect go hand in hand.
Everyone has a role in the hive
Now, we all know that bees operate in a hive, with a ‘queen bee’ known to be at the top of the hierarchy. Despite her title, though, the queen is more of a servant to the whole hive.
While the worker bees spend their lives bringing nectar back to their hive, the queen’s job is to lay eggs – an absolutely crucial role to ensure the survival of their colony.
Leadership in bees is nearly non-existent – there are different roles of course, but everyone plays a part.
Bees don’t have a decision-maker. They have a collective group, where everyone does their job well, and those who don’t get killed or banished. This is because they have the same common goal, instinctually driving them forward to survive and reproduce.
With humans it is different. People have their own individual goals, hopes and ambitions, and their decisions often revolve around those. A good leaders’ job is to align their teams’ goals and to inspire them to work together to achieve their collective targets, and their personal goals naturally will come with that.
Let’s take a step back in time
Leadership has been a key trait throughout the evolution of hominids (the taxonomic family consisting of humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and all great apes). The most recent of our common ancestors may have been alive 14 million years ago, but even they will have displayed similar behavioural patterns.
This common ancestor will have had a leader in their group, and that leader would designate roles to his or her team (albeit in a much more primitive way to modern humans).
The leader, or boss, would expect their team to perform their roles and allow the group to thrive more than its competition. It would have also found innovative ways to help the group further – consider the use of tools for hunting prey or finding fruits to be the ‘sliced bread’ of this ancient ancestor of ours.
Leadership then and now
If it wasn’t for the smart, direct and innovative leadership displayed by our eldest hominid ancestors, humanity as we know it would not exist.
Leadership and social hierarchy have been ingrained in the evolution of our species, and remains as crucial as ever in ensuring the growth of business, economy, society, and everything else you can think of.
So when you next make a decision as a corporate leader, why not consider this: how will this decision help my team to grow and thrive? How might the actions I take now inspire others to continue the evolution of leadership?