What Makes a Leader? Look to the Animal Kingdom

November 16, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

Donald Trump speaking at a political debate
Photo credit: Peter Stevens/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As the U.S. continues to trek through its preliminary presidential debates, the question of what determines leadership skills has been hotly debated and researchers are looking to the animal kingdom for clues to an answer.

As the United States continues its marathon presidential election cycle, many people are wondering what makes a leader? To answer that question, researchers reporting in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution looked to experts in a wide range of disciplines to examine patterns of leadership in small-scale mammalian societies, including humans and other social mammals such as elephants and meerkats. Their analyses have turned up some astonishing comparisons between animal and human leadership.

"While previous work has typically started with the premise that leadership is somehow intrinsically different or more complex in humans than in other mammals, we started without a perceived notion about whether this should be the case," said Jennifer Smith of Mills College in Oakland, California. "By approaching this problem with an open mind and by developing comparable measures to compare vastly different societies, we revealed more similarities than previously appreciated between leadership in humans and non-humans."

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According to Cell Press, which published the study, a group of biologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, and psychologists gathered at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis to consider this issue. The expert analysis found that leadership in both humans and non-humans is generally achieved as individuals gain experience.

This finding bodes well for candidates who are running on their record of political accomplishment and emphasize their political experience, however, there are notable exceptions to this rule. Among spotted hyenas and the Nootka, a Native Canadian tribe on the northwest coast of North America, leadership is inherited rather than gained through experience, according to the study.

This might be a point that candidates with a history of political engagement in their families might want to espouse — think Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

In comparison to other mammal species though, human leaders aren't as powerful, the study said. Leadership among other mammalian species tends to be more concentrated, with leaders that wield more power over the group.

Smith said the similarities between humans and other mammals probably reflect shared cognitive mechanisms governing dominance and subordination, alliance formation, and decision-making — humans are mammals after all.  As for the differences, they may be explained in part by humans' tendency to take on more specialized roles within society and work together on larger scales.

"Even in the least complex human societies, the scale of collective action is greater and presumably more critical for survival and reproduction than in most other mammalian societies," she said.

So while experience seems to be the dominant factor in leadership, don’t decide who to vote for just yet. The recent study has only scratched the surface of understanding the dynamics of leadership across mammals with more in-depth studies yet to come, Smith said.

Based on materials provided by Cell Press.

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