Myths Busted

September 3, 2019

Today’s leaders should apply evolutionary theories to their practise to become mindful and lead effectively, says Graeme Findlay, author of Evolve: How Exceptional Leader Leverage the Inner Voice of Human Evolution and an Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School.

1. The first thing that a new leader needs to do is set the vision for the team

We have all been there, have we not? The new boss has arrived, dragged us away from our work and is energetically selling us their foresight. We are part of the ‘roll out’ of the new vision. If we believe the rhetoric, when we get on board we will be magically transported to nirvana; to our own little slice of heaven on Earth. Once there, we will gasp in wonder at what we have achieved, how we have trounced the opposition. We will sit back and sip our cocktails as the rest of the world gazes on in wonder.

Except something does not ring true. We are not quite sure what the vision looks like to our new boss, but for us, it does not look like a beach with comfortable deck chairs; it just looks like another place where we will have to work. We are also highly suspicious that our boss will be long gone by the time the quoted timeframe has elapsed.

We do our developing leaders a great disservice by telling them to rapidly set a vision with their new team. Such advice does not acknowledge that the vast majority of visions fail. In fact, most visions have a negative impact because they cause large-scale disruption and consume valuable management time.

So, if visions are a bad place for a new leader to start, where is a good place? The answer to that is easy. Great leadership starts with the heart.

The skill that makes leaders great in this environment is that of inquiry rather than advocacy. Great leaders are the ones with the right questions.

2. Great leaders have the right answers

It is perhaps not surprising that many people directly associate leadership with expertise. A large part of our social conditioning as children reinforces this myth. When we are at school, there is no doubt that the teacher is the leader and they seem to have the answer to any question that we ask. As we reach maturity, it takes conscious effort to start to disassociate expertise from leadership, and many people are unwilling to put the effort into understanding this distinction.

As the world continues to build knowledge at an ever-increasing rate, experts are flourishing. There are more scientists practising today than the sum total of all scientists who ever practised prior to the current era. The functioning of our society is more and more dependent on experts. Where once, a significant percentage of people could make a reasonable attempt at fixing their car if it broke down, today the percentage is miniscule. A car today is simply too complicated for anyone except a very few experts.

This phenomenon of radically increased intricacy requiring more and more narrowly-focused experts is a clear signal as to why leaders do not have the right answers. The world today is simply too complicated for any individual to be an expert in everything associated with their endeavor. In this environment, it is the leader who can bring together the multiple strands of expertise who will triumph. The skill that makes leaders great in this environment is that of inquiry rather than advocacy. Great leaders are the ones with the right questions.

3. The concept of ‘command’ has no place in modern leadership

Mention command as a leadership approach and you may well find yourself accused of being a misogynistic relic of the past. However, if we step back from the emotional response, we may conclude that ‘command leadership’ is the victim of stereotyping.

When a respectful and caring relationship is in place, command can be exercised in a thoughtful way. Far from being abrupt and confrontational, it becomes the voice of clarity, reason and security.

If we simply think about command as a leader exercising their authority to give clear direction, then we should not be scared of the word. Authority can be exercised by any gender and used in a way that does not involve shouting, bullying, or physical threats. Is it not the responsibility of a leader to exercise the authority that an organization has vested in her?

The problem with command arises when it is used to the exclusion of other leadership approaches. It is particularly troublesome when used without having established a respectful relationship. This is the equivalent of a [yelling] drill sergeant, which indeed has no place in our modern organizations. However, when a respectful and caring relationship is in place, command can be exercised in a thoughtful way. Far from being abrupt and confrontational, it becomes the voice of clarity, reason and security. People take comfort in having clear expectations and understanding boundaries. It is time we took back the concept of command and gave it a thoroughly modern interpretation that befits the leader of today.

4. Leaders should distance themselves from gossip

Gossip! What does leadership have to do with gossip? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Oxford University Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Robin Dunbar, created quite a storm when he hypothesized that the emergence of gossip was a major factor that underpinned a radical change in the way that our homo sapien ancestors co-operated. Co-operative group sizes went from a maximum of 50 without gossip to 150 once gossip emerged. The fundamentals of leadership changed at this point.

When it comes to leadership, we want to differentiate ourselves from the generally accepted definition of gossip as negative and destructive.

Dunbar went even further though. He found a great deal of evidence to suggest that the group size of 150 remains a natural group size in humans today. In other words, the leadership capability based around gossip is still relevant today.

When it comes to leadership, we want to differentiate ourselves from the generally accepted definition of gossip as negative and destructive. Let us use the term prosocial leadership to describe the positive gossip capability that helps leaders achieve their goals.

Strong prosocial leadership sets out to usurp the gossip in the organization. Usurp is an ugly word, but it perfectly describes what a leader can do to build strong positive communications within a team. Usurp means seize, for use. A leader with strong prosocial capabilities seizes the gossip within an organization and uses it to further their goals.

You might initially think that a leader should be above the gossip if they want to maintain the high moral ground. Exceptional leaders are wilier than this: they get themselves close to the gossip and then seize it, for use.

5. Leadership is so different today that we cannot learn from the past

We live in unprecedented times. As leaders, we face challenges and complexity that our ancestors could not have dreamed of. Surely then, leadership today is fundamentally different from our ancestors. Let us bust that myth.

Every human at every stage of human development has always lived in unprecedented times. When, in ancient Greece, Heraclitus said that “you never step in the same river twice,” he was reflecting on the transitory nature of the world. Whenever you step into a river it is to greet new water. As the river flows, so it is always in the process of changing itself. Even in stable times, the currents erode the banks or deposit silts making it subtly different. Then there are floods, which make it dramatically different.

Heraclitus would have admonished any leader of ancient Greece who presumed to use the leadership approaches of their forebears, warning them that they were working within a different context. Furthermore, he would say, your job as a leader is to lead your people to a new context. Not only are you operating in a different river, but you are also required to reshape the river through your leadership.

Every leader at every point in history has operated in unprecedented times and is tasked with leading their people to an unprecedented future. The human behavior that they encounter, however, is not unprecedented. Every human might be unique, but their behavior, when in a group, has regularities, which have not changed substantially from their anatomically identical ancestors who lived 50,000 years ago.

Modern leaders might deal in a world forging into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but the brains of their followers were forged by evolution, not revolution. Astute leaders seek to understand the leader-follower dynamic of ancient times when tailoring their leadership approaches today.n