Universal and variable leadership dimensions across human societies

Category: Applied Microeconomics and Organization Seminar
When: 17 May 2023
, 14:15
 - 15:30
Where: RuW 4.201

Title: Universal and variable leadership dimensions across human societies

Abstract: Many researchers have turned to evolutionary theory to better understand diversity in leadership. Evolutionary theories of leadership, in turn, draw on ethnographic cases of societies thought to more closely resemble the smaller-scale, face-to-face communities in which humans evolved. Currently, though, there is limited systematic data on the nature of leadership in such societies.

We coded 109 dimensions of leadership, including costs and benefits relevant to evolutionary models, in 1212 ethnographic texts from 59 mostly nonindustrial populations in Human Relations Area Files (HRAF). We discovered evidence for both cultural universals in leadership, as well as important variation by continental region, subsistence strategy, group context, and leader sex. Candidate universals included that leaders were intelligent and knowledgeable, resolved conflicts, and received material and social benefits. Evidence for other leader dimensions varied by group context (e.g., there was more evidence that leaders of kin groups were older and tended to provide counsel and direction), subsistence (e.g., hunter-gatherers tended to lack leaders with coercive authority), and sex (e.g., female leaders tended to be associated with family contexts). There was generally more evidence of benefits than costs for both leaders and followers, with material, social, and mating benefits being particularly important for leaders, and material and other benefits important for followers.

Shamans emerged as an important category of leaders who did not clearly conform to influential models that emphasize two leader strategies: using knowledge and expertise to provide benefits to followers vs. using physical formidability to impose costs. Instead, shamans and other leaders with supernatural abilities used their knowledge to both provide benefits and impose costs on others. We therefore propose a modified scheme in which leaders deploy their cognitive, social, material, and somatic capital to provide benefits and/or impose costs on others.