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The origins of human leadership and implications for modern Japan

Arthur Woodruff Bastian

Key words: leadership, followership, evolution, Japan, business, culture, psychology

For those in business who appreciate tracing human behavior back to its roots, I’ve found a fascinating article in American Psychologist called, “Leadership, Followership, and Evolution; Some Lessons from the Past” [1]. It explores the survival challenges that programmed early humans toward certain collaborative structures and the implications for today’s business practices. The authors’ research and perspective provide a rationale for many common managerial principals, but also suggest some less accepted models.  The article also inspires thoughts about the trajectory that the Japanese culture and mind have taken compared to the West.

Let me first provide an overview.  The authors utilize the tools of evolutionary psychology to examine models of leadership behavior in pre-humans, humans, and even non-humans to map the drivers and modifications in our development. The key time period appears to be the 2.5 million years leading up to the end of the last ice age when early humans lived in kinship bands of 50 to 150 people. Three circumstances drove our ancestors to leadership-followership collaboration: (1) group decisions on where to go and how to get there, (2) intra-group conflicts, and (3) inter-group competition. Different leaders may have been chosen for each of these tasks or even for different stages of implementation. Leadership appears to have been egalitarian, situational and distributed, and not likely appreciated at all unless the situation called for group action. When needed, however, clans that could generate more efficient and effective leadership-followership practices would fare better under selective pressures. Leadership traits evolved in individuals since these were highly valued and rewarded, but followership emerged in parallel and often played the dominant role.

The article then walks us through the tremendous societal changes in the last 13,000 years driven by the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the accumulation of great amounts of central wealth and power. From 13,000 to 250 years ago humans were generally subject to chiefdoms, kingdoms and warlord societies with hierarchical, unilateral, and often hereditary leadership structures. We emerged from the industrial revolution into modern-day democratic nation-states and businesses, but these are still largely centralized and hierarchical. The authors propose that the societal changes over this short evolutionary time period create a number of “mismatches” to the predispositions of the human mindset and are a source of individual and large scale conflict. One key mismatch in today’s bureaucratic environment is the reduction in power of followers to influence group actions to their own benefit. A second source of conflict is the overload of responsibilities on our leaders – it is not “natural” for individuals to have the varied range of leadership capabilities expected in modern management.

My first main takeaway from this article is the importance of quality followership to team success and motivation. I have had the opportunity to facilitate and coach a large number of teams and found that promoting good followership is just as important to success as leadership. Followers must be given a sense of ownership and then proactively provide input, not just from their functional perspective, but also on the team direction as a whole. Followers should also play a key role in leadership selection as they often have the best perspective on the skills and mindsets required to manage the organization effectively, and inclusion builds better organizational buy-in and motivation.

A second takeaway is the uniqueness of the Japanese business environment.  Whereas the West transitioned from small-homogeneous groups to large-heterogeneous organizations, the Japanese have transitioned to large-homogeneous organizations.  This sense of kinship and cultural alignment allows Japanese to collaborate in ways more similar to our leadership-followership evolutionary origins with more bottoms-up control and less dependence on central leadership and bureaucracy. Although the Japanese business mindset can pose risks to timely change in global environments, the world’s business practices may benefit from taking a closer look at how Japanese collaboration aligns with evolved human psychology and its inherent advantages.

Nonetheless, Japan is facing a challenge today of finding next generation leaders. The article suggests two reasons, from an evolutionary standpoint, why this might be. First, humans tend to generate strong decisive leaders in times of war or economic trauma, and to generate more passive leadership in times of peace and prosperity. Could it be that the long post-war stability is giving the Japanese population a (false) sense of security? Second, the article uses game theory to model the advantages for individuals to choose leadership versus followership. Considering Japan’s business culture and the uncertainties of today, it may be that the risk-reward ratio makes leadership roles unattractive.

As Japanese businesses globalize, they should protect and promote valuable aspects of their unique leadership-followership business culture. They must also come to terms with the root cause of and solutions for the difficulties in identifying and generating leaders for the challenges ahead.

[1] Mark Van Vugt, Robert Hogan, and Robert B. Kaiser. Leadership, Followership, and Evolution. American Psychologist. Vol. 63, No. 3, 182-196, 2008.

Note: I discovered the referenced article while researching the principles behind the Hogan Assessment Systems personality tests which are offered as part of INGENI’s organizational and leadership development toolkit.  Dr. Robert Hogan is a key contributor to the article.

About the author: Arthur is a Partner in Ingeni Consulting. He brings fifteen years hands-on consulting experience leading programs in IMS, McKinsey & Co. and PRTM. Working closely with senior management and client teams he has improved the operations of global companies in a wide range of industries and especially life sciences. Arthur has deep familiarity with the Japanese language and business practices with over 20 years in Japan. He has a BS in Physics from Oregon State University, and a MBA from Cornell University. Arthur is APICS certified in supply chain management and is a Six Sigma black belt. Prior to consulting Arthur conducted R&D in Japan and the U.S. for Bridgestone Corporation.  Arthur trained in Japanese at Keio University and speaks conversational Mandarin.