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We all have our own beliefs about how ideal leaders should behave and the qualities they should have. Some researchers think that these leader prototypes are forged by evolutionary mechanisms, while others contend they are culturally transmitted. But are these two views really at loggerheads with each other? Couldn’t we argue that environmental factors – war or peace, feast or famine, epidemic or health security, high or low population density – also fashion our leader figures? This is the hypothesis put forward in a recent article by NEOMA’s Sirio Lonati and Mark Van Vugt.

Why are authoritarian leaders accepted more readily in China and Korea than in Western countries? Why do 80% of Egyptians believe that men make better political leaders than women, compared to just 6% of Swedes? Why do German-speaking Swiss have a stronger preference for participative management, which meets with little success among their French-speaking compatriots?

The origin of leader prototypes: culture or evolution?

Digging into the mechanisms that forge our leader prototypes means diving into a debate between two rival schools of thought. The first puts the accent on culture, arguing that it is our repeated interactions with others – such as our parents, teachers, managers, or even the media – that define our leadership ideals. So, for example, people might think: “I like strong leaders more because my society has always been led by strongmen”.

The second school comes down to the side of evolution. The roles of leader and “followers” emerged to help the earliest human communities coordinate amongst themselves and cooperate in key activities: group movement, hunting, warfare, and so forth. Our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers for two million years, and natural selection shaped the human brain to choose the “right” leader for the “right” context. So, “If there’s a danger, it’s better to follow a leader who’s physically strong”.

And yet, neither of these schools of thought provides all the answers. The cultural perspective explains where and how certain leader prototypes gain the upper hand but it does not clarify why different leadership ideals emerge in the first place. Conversely, the evolutionary perspective sheds light on the origins of leadership prototypes but is tight-lipped about their diversity around the world. How to connect these apparently conflicting perspectives?

Evoked culture and transmitted culture: two-speed mechanisms

The authors put forward the following hypothesis to bridge this divide: our leadership prototypes are also a response to our environment – i.e. natural, health, economic, and political factors. This idea draws on two mechanisms suggested by evolutionary researchers in the 1990s: “evoked culture” and “transmitted culture”.

The evoked culture mechanism posits that leader prototypes are modelled by individuals’ evolved ability to react to different socio-environmental events and situations, such as natural disasters, epidemics, climatic accidents, famines, or warfare. In turn, if most individuals in a society react similarly to the same socio-environmental conditions and if entire societies live in different socio-environmental conditions, that will be enough to generate heterogeneous leadership ideals across the world. Transmitted culture, on the other hand, considers that our leader ideals are the result of social learning, echoing what earlier generations have retained about leadership under various socio-environmental conditions.

Evoked and transmitted culture can both explain societal differences in leadership ideals, yet they make radically different predictions about their change. Evoked culture implies that new leader prototypes would be expected to develop post-haste whenever there is a shift in the environmental conditions. By contrast, these changes would prompt a slower response – or even no change at all – with transmitted culture.

Where there’s a serious threat, there’s an authoritarian leader

The authors cite several examples of work that investigates the triggering role of environmental conditions and external events on the emergence of different types of leadership.

For instance, floods and earthquakes that threaten the survival of human groups produce more rigid societies that dwell on strict respect for common rules and set harsh penalties for non-compliance. This breeds an authoritarian style of leadership and excludes figures who are intent on building democratic decision-making styles.

Similar profiles emerge in response to outbreaks of an epidemic. In such cases, people sign up to the tough social rules imposed by the leader (social distancing, for example, or isolating infected individuals) – or at least they don’t openly challenge these rules. The same mechanisms, it is argued, operate when there is a shortage of water or food or a lack of housing.

Last but not least, war also creates the conditions for leadership models that are powerful and authoritarian. To no great surprise, a “good” leader in times of war is an unmistakably strong and iron-willed person, someone whose attributes speak of physical domination – a deep voice, for example, or an authoritarian-looking face.

Transmitted culture reins in adaptation to new contexts

Evoked and transmitted culture are different mechanisms, but they may sometimes converge to shape certain leadership prototypes. For instance, a natural disaster might spur citizens to seek out a powerful leader (evoked culture), especially if they subscribe to the view that: “We have always had strong leaders” (transmitted culture).

Conversely, transmitted culture may act as a brake. Take the case of 18th and 19th-century Australia: the country was colonised by convicts deported from England, almost all of whom were men, thereby contributing to the emergence of predominantly masculine leadership prototypes. Two centuries later, people living in areas historically inhabited mostly by men still think that men make better leaders than women.

The approach taken by Lonati and Van Vugt is relatively pioneering in leadership studies, and a great deal more research is needed in this field. But their article provides fresh insight into how the profiles of ideal leaders are moulded in different societies depending on the environment, culture, and evolution. The research also encourages us to look at certain episodes in our history from an entirely new perspective. Why, for instance, did the British people oust Winston Churchill so abruptly in 1945 as the country was emerging from a war it had just won thanks also to the prime minister? By contrast, why today do we still pick leaders who are so ponderous in tackling climate issues in spite of the proliferation and gravity of the warning signs?

Find out more

Sirio Lonati and Mark Van Vugt, Ecology, culture and leadership: Theoretical integration and review, The Leadership Quarterly, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2023.101749