As a culture, we tend to venerate leaders. They are the “cream of the crop” – the most talented individuals in business, academia, and politics. We all want to be like them for the high status and financial rewards. There is an entire self-help industry geared towards improving the average Joe’s leadership skills and social abilities. But new research casts doubt on the idea that leaders emerge because of their talents. Instead, evidence suggests interpersonal social dynamics are the driving force.
This somewhat unexpected finding comes from the work of Associate Professor David Goldbaum at UTS Business School. In computer simulation modeling, he found that even when agents all started off with the same level of skill, a leader still emerged.
The findings led Professor Goldbaum to argue that what really catapults people into leadership positions is self-reinforcing social dynamics, not their abilities. Leadership is more of a group phenomenon, he says, than something that the individual does.
This new set of findings goes against the current view of leadership. They suggest that it is not correct to assume that people achieve leadership positions because they are more “talented” or “worthy.” Instead, it may have more to do with the dynamics and attitudes of the followers.
This type of thinking is quite alien to many people. From an early age, the school teaches that the most skilled and talented rise to the top and everyone else slots in underneath. But the real world doesn’t work meritocratically. Instead, leaders seem to be benefiting from a self-reinforcing process. Gaining a higher rank leads to more status which propels them to even greater success.
Professor Goldbaum’s analysis involved developing a computer simulation of leadership dynamics. He populated his programs with “agents” designed to mimic the behavior of humans in a group. The agents were identical. So, a priori, you wouldn’t expect any one of them to emerge as a natural leader.
But after running thousands of simulations, professor Goldbaum noticed a pattern emerging. After a certain number of iterations, agents began responding to payoffs, organizing themselves, and coordinating their actions. A leader began to emerge naturally from the process, despite the fact that they had no more innate talent than anyone else.
Professor Goldbaum sees it as a kind of snowball effect. A person who wants to become a leader slowly builds up influence. They then gain popularity which propels them to a leadership position. Once in that position, they have more influence and power, generating a self-sustaining process. Their influence increases over time.
How much we should apply the results of the research to our understanding of the real world is a matter of debate. However, professor Goldbaum’s computer simulation raises an interesting point. Could it be that what matters most isn’t the talent of the leader but the mere fact that groups have one?
The lesson from the research is that people interested in becoming leaders should first research the popularity game they are playing before worrying about their skills. Professor Goldbaum says that the fundamental reason why leaders emerge in groups has to do with individuals’ desires to conform and function in society, leading to situations where leaders naturally arise. Traits don’t seem to matter as much.
Such effects are actually highly beneficial for human cooperation. If everyone was making up their own rules as they went along, there would be chaos.
So what practical advice does professor Goldbaum give to people in light of these findings? To start he suggests being an early follower of an emerging leader. Benefits of leadership tend to accrue most rapidly to followers when they are still early in the social revolution. It also increases status before the lion’s share of the financial and status rewards accrue.
Furthermore, getting in early allows followers to benefit from feedback loops. For instance, an agent’s interest in a new band might elevate the band’s status with music companies, leading to increased marketing and sales that increase their success.
But is it all down to these social dynamics or does individual talent play a role? Professor Goldbaum investigated this by changing the starting characteristics of the agents in his computer model. It turns out that agents with larger social networks are much more likely to become leaders than others but it is no guarantee of success. The model, therefore, suggests that while traditional leadership traits may enhance the probability of becoming a leader, leaders don’t necessarily have to have any of them.