Deliberately starve a fish and it will take the front position in a shoal (Krauss, 1993). Wild baboons consistently follow an alpha-male to food, only to be left hungry (King et al. 2008), and broad-winged hawks line up behind their elders during migration (Maransky, B.P. and Bildstein, 2001). From an evolutionary perspective, the predominant determinants of leadership were inextricably linked to survival. Leaders arose due to their ability to fight, to feed and to inform.
In 2016 we are, for the most part, beyond such considerations. Yet sex and height still correlate strongly with contemporary leadership. 96% of S&P 500 CEOs are male (Catalyst, 2016), and they are over 800% more likely to be 6’2″ or taller than the general population (Gladwell, 2005). Is it time for us to re-examine our predisposition to electing, promoting and following leaders based on obsolete and perhaps unconscious notions from our evolutionary past?
In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the tragic protagonist Okonkwo responds to his surroundings by becoming a fierce, autocratic and reactionary leader. So embedded and unconscious are his behaviours, that he is unable to prevent himself from shooting at his wife, murdering his young protégé and decapitating a colonial messenger. Ironically, the characteristics of the ‘great man’ he seeks to be – strong, unwavering and ruthless – are also those that result in his inevitable downfall. What Okonkwo lacks is the power of introspection, adaptability and self-awareness. Characteristics he would no doubt dismiss as ‘womanly’.
Recent studies indicate that women outperform men in leadership positions (Catalyst, 2016). Moreover, leaders who perform the worst at emotional intelligence tests are overwhelmingly CEOs (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009). Despite these studies, we remain more comfortable with ‘powerful’ and autocratic leaders.
Although we may empathise, Okonkwo is not alone in embodying a leadership style that’s past its sell-by date. We must demand more from our leaders in today’s increasingly complex and globalised environment. Without a strong awareness of self, adaptability and introspection, we are unwittingly following our evolutionary past – in essence, the traditions of our forefathers. Okonkwo serves as a grave warning of where that might just lead.
Bradberry, T. Greaves, J. (2009) Emotional intelligence 2.0. San Diego, Calif.: TalentSmart.
Catalyst, “Women CEOs of the S&P 500,” http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-ceos-sp-500 (last accessed Feb 2016).
Gladwell, Malcolm. (2005) Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. New York : Little, Brown and Co.
King, A.J., Douglas, C.M.S., Huchard, E., Isaac, N.J.B., and Cowlishaw, G.Curr. (2008) Dominance and affiliation mediate despotism in a social primate. Biol. 1833–1838
Krause, J. (1993) The Relationship between foraging and shoal position in a mixed shoal of roach (Rutilus-Rutilus) and chub (Leuciscus-Cephalus) - a field-study. Oecologia. 356–359
Maransky, B.P. and Bildstein, K.L. (2001) Follow your elders: Age-related differences in the migration behavior of Broad-winged Hawks at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania. Wilson Bull. 350–353
Zenger, J. and Folkman, J. (2012). Are Women Better Leaders than Men? Harvard Business Review. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.