Book Review: Selected

by Authors Mark Van Vugt & Anjana Ahuja

Review by Faith Wood, Inspiring Minds Consulting

If you don’t have followers than, let’s face it, you are not leading (regardless of your title).  This book sought to answer the question of not only why some people lead but why most choose to follow.

Taking an anthropological view of leadership styles through modern evolution, I thought the authors posed a few great questions:  Is our current love affair with charismatic leaders actually working?  Does our ancestral preference for tall chiseled men at the helm still ring true in a modern era which appears to require a more social and relationship oriented approach to leadership?   If we are desirous of social emphasis, why then do we resist putting women in high profile positions?  Is gossip actually good for an organization?

The book was an interesting and relatively easy read which summarized ten recommendations for a modern leader-follower relationship:

1.        Don’t overrate the romance of leadership.   We celebrate leaders when things are going well and blame them when situations feel direr.  But in today’s modern world, leaders are usually figure heads who have to work with committees and coalitions to effect change.  Thus, they deserve less credit and less blame for their actions than our ancestral leaders ever did.

2.       Find a niche and develop your prestige. Do you have a skill that can benefit the group?  It helps to develop it and become somewhat indispensable in your work place.  The more you are relied on for your expertise, the more freedom and long term stability you have.

3.       Keep it small and natural. Apparently we work more cohesively in groups that do not exceed 150.  This allows us to maintain our ancestral desire for tribal like belonging.  Apparently our followers want to feel like they are part of a family unit.

4.       Favor followers. “Dominance is a part of our primate history and there is always the risk that people in leadership positions will coerce and exploit their followers.” The authors give modern day followers many suggestions in Chapter 5 of how to stop this exploitation.

5.       Practice distributed leadership.  In ancestral times, leadership was fluid, situational and distributed.  Leaders were chosen for roles in which they were most qualified.  Bureaucracy has adjusted that over time and, in today’s modern world, often the fate of an organization rests on one person’s shoulders.  The authors recommend a rethink of this type of top down leadership.  The burden should be shared among qualified individuals.  Followers need to feel they can aspire to higher level positions.

6.       Mind the pay gap.  We have entered an era where leaders need to curb the culture of excessive pay and bonuses.  “When institutions favor leaders at the cost of followers, something has to give eventually”.  There are many investors who refuse to support organizations where the disparity between pay is too immense.  We expect some perks for our top leaders, but mind the gap.

7.       Look for leaders from within.  We used to appoint leaders from within the clan for their skill and talent.  Today, leaders are appointed in one’s own image from the top echelon who often favors those who appear like-minded.  This style of hiring often undermines the group and prevents skill development and growth within the followers.  Keep it up and you may find you are leading no one.

8.       Watch out for nepotism.  When you appoint CEOs simply on the basis of family bloodlines, you set up your organization for corruption both perceived and realistic.  Natural leaders should recruit people who have the best qualifications rather than relying on a small circle of relatives and friends.

9.       Avoid the dark side.  Domination is part of our ancestral coding and is often the swiftest method of gaining compliance from our subordinates.  However, it is often more advantageous for a natural leader to seek consensus within a group and avoid the tendency to dominate as the primates do.

10.   Don’t judge a leader by his or her cover. Chapter 6 reveals the psychology behind who we choose to follow and under what conditions.

And as for gossip….these authors believe you should not prevent it.  Flaws within an organization are often revealed through this primal activity.  Listen to it and adjust your style and approach when gossip proves a point.

Perhaps it is time to rethink our instinctual inclination towards leadership.  Choosing the right person for the job may take a little more evolution in these modern times.

At the back of this book, the authors give readers a chance to assess their own unique leadership preferences.  Are you brave enough to take the test?  I did!