04 September 2012

Leaders, Followers, Outsiders

In the ancestral environment, there were probably three basic strategies a man could follow. He could be a leader, a follower, or an outsider.

The most desirable role is that of leader. The leader tells other men what to do, and impresses the girls in the process. There can't be all that many leaders, but the "Genghis Khan effect" suggests we are all disproportionately descended from those few.

Leaders have followers, and followers can have descendants too. I think simple observation is quite sufficient to show that many men are easily persuaded to follow a leader. The tendency towards governments which emphasise the personality of a leader suggests it is easier to get people to follow a leader than to follow an ideology or a set of abstract rules.

Not everyone is a leader or a follower though. There is a third role as someone who does not seek to lead others, but tries to avoid being led. I would guess that in the ancestral environment there was frequently an option of leaving the band, either with a woman or managing to retain access to one or more. It is a risky strategy, but potentially a very successful one.

In the modern environment, heading for the frontier is rarely an option, but it is easier than ever to reject all authority in society without being geographically separate from it. In medieval society, the only "outsider" roles were beggar or hermit, but today, in addition, we have freelancers, independent businessmen, the unemployed; indeed, even in employment the norm is to deny any personal authority belonging to employers or hierarchical superiors. Being under personal authority, as opposed to some rulebook, is seen as demeaning and inferior.

So we have a strange reversal: in political activity, people are nominally supposed to be adherents to some theory or ideology, but tend instead to offer loyalty to a leader. In productive activity, most people are nominally answerable to some superior, but bridle at that and prefer to see themselves rather as performing an abstract function.

What could explain this contradiction? I have a couple of ideas. First, the statesman on the television is likely to be a far more charismatic figure than the pointy-haired boss in the office next to the cubicles. He is selected from a large pool mainly for that value. In other words, large-scale media distorts our perception of what is a worthy leader in the same way that some argue it distorts our perception of what is a worthy mate. Also, loyalty to a political figure is a fake kind of followership: unlike the office General Manager, the politician isn't going to directly tell you what to do. By analogy, the charismatic TV politician is to our innate sense of loyalty what a cupcake is to our innate sense of nutrition. The status of entertainment celebrities may be another aspect of the same tendency.

Alternatively, it may simply be that leadership was always something relevant to warfare and politics, while productive activity was more a matter of men acting independently or in voluntary cooperation. When we slot into the "follower" role, we expect to be led in raiding the next band, but we look for food on our own and hunt to display our own skill and courage. (Note I'm following the mainstream methodology of anthropology here, which is a technique I call "making shit up").

Still with the making shit up, while a precivilised band probably followed a leader, at least for political purposes, I doubt it had middle management. The role of follower of one but leader of others may be an innovation driven by larger social groups in the last few millennia, and an awkward compromise in terms of our social instincts.

The replacement of direct personal loyalty with celebrity-worship is a very modern phenomenon, but at the same time the culmination of a centuries-long process. That is worth another post.


James James said...

"(Note I'm following the mainstream methodology of anthropology here, which is a technique I call "making shit up").

Still with the making shit up"

This syntax bugs me: the first reference to "making shit up" appears within brackets, and then goes out of scope, so what is the "still with" referring to?

Anyone else get this?

Aretae said...


There's some reasonable research in Hierarchy in the Forest and some others suggesting that tribal bands are fiercely anti-leader. Temporary, partial leadership only on areas of specialization is the norm.

It takes agriculture to get anything we would identify as "leader"...this because then you can amass wealth, pay lackeys, and kill the folks who don't do as they're told...and even then it doesn't work well, unless they're tied to their land.

Anomaly UK said...

Aretae, I have tried to look into some of that; I haven't got hold of Hierarchy in the Forest, but I've traced bibliographies back to stuff like Knauft, e.g. Violence and Sociality in Human Evolution . It's not terrible, but it's a long way from convincing: the evidence is mostly from the few surviving "simple societies", which may be self-selecting for hostility to anything which resembles progress. I speculated some time ago that the move to agriculture is likely to be driven by leaders, since it's more in their interests than in the interests of the group.

The ancient evidence is unclear; ultimately, the result of social experiments on modern humans are both more accessible and more relevant.