As we survey the path leadership theory has taken



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Evolutionary Roots

One of the most important criticisms of Frederick Taylor’s theory of management was that it ignored human nature. Indeed, any modern theory of organizational behavior (and leadership) implicitly or explicitly depends on certain assumptions about the nature of humans.20 Freud believed that to understand human behavior one had to understand the evolutionary origins of humans at the genetic level. Some human tendencies, according to Freud, are unconscious and beyond our ken without the help of a therapist, so that humans often will not know why they do what they do. Darwin probably influenced Freud, at least in some respects: Freud credited Darwin for his decision to enter medical school and his theory of psychosexual developments had clear biological and Darwinian influences.21 Freud of course was wrong in implying that at the root of all human motivation were two basic instincts: eros, (including sex, self-preservation, love) and the destructive instinct (aggression, the death instinct, hate).22 Robert Wright, whose work on modern evolutionary theory amends and extends psychoanalysis, argues forcefully that most humans are motivated by a wide range of unconscious, biological impulses, including Freud’s eros and the destructive instinct, but also a drive for status and a deep concern for how one is perceived by others.23 In addition, humans tend to be both deeply selfish as well as very altruistic (i.e., for example, in their willingness to make sacrifices for family, relatives, friends). Both Freud and evolutionary theory agree on the frequency of self-deception by humans but disagree about the purposes it serves. According to Wright, Freudian theory says humans lie to avoid punishment by the superego, because, in other words, they agree with society that such impulses are wrong; evolutionary theory says people lie to themselves because they want to have their way with others. Modern Darwinians are certainly more cynical, but they might make more sense in some instances.24

The proclivity of humans to imitate and to follow is also well established in anthropologic and biological research.25 Tracing human behavior to these disciplines does not suggest of course that people are monkeys or that their biological origins imply a masculine model of leadership. Research with primates indicates the existence of clear positions of dominance and the group’s preference for hierarchical leadership positions for the overall benefit of the group in terms of food and safety: when fighting exists among dominant primates for control of a group, the overall welfare of the group declines and suffers.26 The dominance hierarchy promotes stability and peace within the group and the community looks to the leader for direction, protection, and for control of conflict. Higher status primates also have higher levels of serotonin in their blood and lower status primates within the group show higher stress and are more likely to bare their teeth in a show of fear and submission when confronted by the dominant group members.

Biological roots of authority have contemporary resonance in a variety of settings. Howard Dean’s screams (was he an Internet “blind date” gone bad?) and the Michael Dukakis ill-fitting tank helmet (making him look like Snoopy) during their political campaigns were emblematic of their respective downfalls as presidential aspirants. Students of body language repeatedly cite imitation that flows from higher status individuals to lower status ones. Examples include imitation in fashion, such as pop singer Madonna’s impact on teenage girls’ dress habits in the early 1980s; in speech patterns, such as slang from movies and television like “All righty then” or “Cool…”; in physical looks, such as Elvis’ sideburns or the Beatles long, floppy hair. Imitation of course is not all bad nor is it limited to teenagers or movie star fans: official “dress codes” of Apple Computer (or lack thereof) in the early days of Steven Jobs were a sign of rebelliousness in accordance with the “dot.com” garage culture.

The patterns that emerge in small settings involving adult groups are also instructive. Take, for example, the classic movie 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda as the jurist who single-handedly took on the jury’s chairman and eventually led his eleven peers to reconsider their hasty decision to convict a young boy charged with murdering his father. A group with members who do not know each other will quickly establish a hierarchy when undertaking a task. They will select a “chair” for the group and that leader or chair is expected to perform a role of coordination and direction. During a problem or crisis needing intervention or mediation, the group will look to its leader and expect resolution. If resolution is not forthcoming, the leader will lose status and even the dominant role.27 Thus, studies of small adult groups suggest a psychological dynamic to authority: when uncertainty and stress arise within a group, the group members will look to a leader for coordination and problem solving. Leaderless situations are possible—“hippy” communes have often functioned without leaders—but they have been a clear exception in history.

Family and Early Childhood


In 1802, Wordsworth suggested a simple answer to the impact of childhood on a person’s development: “The child is father of the man.”28 Milton narrowed it to five words: “The childhood shows the man.”29 And while the “entire man” might not be seen in the “cradle of the child,” as de Tocqueville wrote, a leader’s family background and early life have deservedly received intense attention in leadership literature, particularly from the discipline of psychology with the work of Freud, Piaget, and Erikson.30 The flow of images, symbols, trends, stereotypes, and experiences around a child in the home is a powerful influence on the adult leader and the early socialization of children provides powerful clues about future behaviors.

Research highlights the importance of the establishment in early life of a strong and secure bond of attachment between infant and caretaker: a developing sense of trust between child and caretaker, or its absence, colors the way individuals react to authority later in life. Another feature is the gradual emergence in the young child of a sense of self. Children as young as 18 months are aware that they exist as separate beings. They know names, faces, and how they are similar to certain other individuals. Scholars study this process, known as identification, where children begin to identify with certain people within their immediate circle just as they also begin to develop a sense of self as a distinct person. An intriguing indicator of future leaders exists when a youngster exhibits a capacity at an early age to “identify” with a more distant authority figure, with someone not in his or her immediate circle, an identification that “manifests itself both in efforts to emulate the leader and in a willingness to challenge that leader under certain circumstances.”31

By five years of age, children already have formed notions about how their world works and they have stereotypes about their surroundings. They have a surprisingly large number of pre-conceptions: their minds are “made up” in a large number of instances.32 The theories and scripts, according to Gardner, are well consolidated by this age, and in the absence of compelling events that are frequently re-enforced, “the growing individual shows little inclination to change.”33 That is, there is remarkable persistence over one’s life in this phenomenon and it has relevant implications for communications between leaders and their followers. A leader of a medical society can assume a certain level of audience sophistication and familiarity with technical terms when addressing a society meeting. The “longer version,” complete with technical details and nuances, will often work. However, when leading an organization as broad as a university or a political party, leaders face amazingly heterogeneous audiences and long, sophisticated stories, in Gardner’s terminology, are often not as successful as those that appeal to the “unschooled” five-year-old mind that wants the shorter version, the sound bite, to a problem or challenge. When Pat Buchanan, a “third party” presidential candidate during the 1990s, proclaimed that he would put a security fence around America to “seal the borders of this country” and stop immigration, he was appealing to this unschooled or five-year-old mind that prefers the less sophisticated version and so was George W. Bush when he mocked critics of his decision to remove Saddam Hussein's regime: "Maybe they were hoping he'd lose the next election," Bush said. On the other hand, Walter Mondale’s elaborate discussion of economic matters, of growth and incomes, of unemployment and interest rates, fell on deaf ears while the Reagan mantra about “supply side” economics (that earlier George H. Bush had called “voodoo economics”) appealed to voters not interested in a macroeconomics lesson.

Combining the thesis from Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” (that suggests American has become a nation of “loners” where sense of community and civic engagement have declined and where people are busier than ever with less time for civic responsibilities) with Gardner’s five-year-old mind concept frames the problem of leadership communication in the 21st century in an interesting manner.34 When Franklin Delano Roosevelt held his famous “fireside” chats on the radio on Sunday afternoons, he competed for the audience’s attention against relatively few alternatives. Similarly, when John Kennedy held a press conference, the same live “feed” could be seen on the nation’s three television networks: CBS, ABC, and NBC. Today, when George W. Bush holds a press conference, he competes with a huge number of alternatives: ESPN, HBO, the dozens of movie channels, the Internet, AM and FM radio stations, and satellite radio, not to mention the instantaneous critiques and rebuttals to whatever he mighty say. The upshot is that the “sound bite” and the unsophisticated version are increasingly winning the day because few people have the time and inclination for the longer stories.


Resiliency—On the Ability to Play a Poor Hand Well

In a Farewell to Arms, Hemingway wrote that the “world breaks everyone and afterward some are strong at the broken places.” The relatively new topic of resiliency is of special interest here not only because it can provide insights to the ways individuals rebound from difficult and even tragic circumstances during childhood, but also because there is an apparent association between a troubled childhood or an absent father or mother and unusual achievement in later life.35 Researchers studying the lives of successful adults who overcame adversity have cited instances in which children used successes in one area of life to neutralize enduring pain in another.36 For example, many children growing up in violent situations who were skilled academically or athletically and socially engaging were able to use their school experiences to neutralize some of the turmoil experienced at home. From the first day of school, many of these children felt successful and accepted. They were buffered and shielded by teachers, supported by friends and classmates, and welcomed by their friends’ families. They developed a sense of mastery by virtue of their school experiences. One of the leaders interviewed during the conduct of this study (not one of the six cases presented in later chapters) put it this way:

My father left when I was seven years old and returned three years later with another family. My parents divorced, leaving me at home with a younger sister and my mother, who took on all the familial responsibilities by herself. From the very beginning, reading was a way to escape a very dysfunctional family situation. It was a way to live other lives. It was the emotional “place” where I hid and where I first began how to understand other people and how to interpret their feelings and emotions.
Ironically, what might be bad for an individual child might later prove to be good for society and a set of conditions that creates chronic unhappiness might establish a driving interest in a particular goal and the motivation to achieve that goal. As Subotnik et al., ask: “What more could individuals accomplish if they had a ‘psychological worm’ eating inside them, such as low self-concept or need to prove something to someone or to the world, toward the development of a specific talent?”37 Barbara Kerr, in her Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness, echoes many of these themes between difficult childhoods of girls and later extraordinariness.38 An awkward adolescence compounded by difficult childhood experiences emphasized a sense of separateness from other people, a consciousness often rooted in a lonely or troubled childhood. These girls understood the advantages, as well as the heartaches and loneliness, of nonconformity. It increased their time alone, which allowed them to focus inwardly on their dreams and intellectual achievements and encouraged compassion for and identification with the suffering of disadvantaged or unaccepted people.

The young people who develop the mental muscle required to overcome childhood adversities and do well as adults tend to rely on protective influences in their earlier years. These protective shields enable them eventually to deal with the pain they endure and to recognize the special talents they possess.39 Refuge comes from three primary sources: 1) from within the children themselves, as evidenced by personal qualities or attributes such as unusual athletic ability or looks or intelligence (Katz calls such children “sparkly,” possessing qualities that draw others toward them in times of need); 40 2) from the family, such as a parent or grandparent or sibling who buffered and nurtured a child; and 3) from the community or schools or youth and religious groups, through an external support system that allows meaningful and valued relationships to form and flourish and allows a child to express talents or interests.41



What differentiates the children who cope and later succeed from those who do not? The literature lists several factors 42:

  1. The children who escaped serious harm had personal attributes that produced positive responses from people they came in contact with. They had an active and social temperament, a “hardy” personality that seemed to draw people to their lives. They seemed to gain a sense of pride from their achievements, their hobbies, interests, and talents. First is a sense of internal control, a sense that says “I can influence what happens to me.” This of course doesn’t mean that one can control everyone around them or the situations; it means that one can control oneself and accept responsibility for one’s decisions and their consequences. Management scholars call this attitude toward change an “internal locus of control.” Teachers at school observed them to be very good problem solvers. Resilient children are also rather proactive rather than reactive or passive when solving problems. They tend to take charge of the situation as opposed to waiting for others to do things for them or react negatively to situations they can’t control. This proactivity requires self-reliance and independence but also social adeptness in order to obtain help from adults and peers.

  2. They usually establish a close bond with at least one primary caregiver during infancy and early childhood. This caregiver is not always the parent: it might be a coach or a teacher or another relative. They enjoyed affectional ties with grandparents and older brothers or sisters, who served as buffers or as parent substitutes. The buffers often shielded the children from some of the stresses surrounding them. They also encouraged trust and initiative within the children.

  3. The children benefited from an external support system that recognized, valued, and rewarded talents and abilities and provided the children with a sense of coherence. The added support was gained in many different ways, such as through school experiences, involvement in youth groups, or in religious activities.

  4. Children adept at dealing with adversity were able to construe their experiences in positive and constructive ways. This is true even for those experiences that are painful or negative. They tend to be good-natured and easy to deal with. As a result, they gain other people’s positive attention. Of course, a good-natured disposition is to some extent innate. But this doesn’t mean, however, that a child not so blessed is doomed to failure; it simply means that such a child is at greater risk when exposed to adversity or other risk factors.

  5. They have a sense of challenge and of commitment and consistently exhibit the ability to find meaning and value in what they are doing, another aspect of “hardy” personalities. This includes seeing the positive aspects of change and getting beyond the negative or “scary” aspects of a situation. Threats do not immobilize the individual, but rather often enable them to see a purpose behind their existence. The ability to see some meaning behind suffering and hardship is in fact an important quality in resilient, hardy children. Often, this sense of purpose is found by assuming the role of caregiver or peacemaker to others in their negative situation.

  6. Finally, too much adversity is difficult to overcome no matter how resilient or “sparkly” the child. Research shows that exposure to several sources of stress (such as severe marital discord, low socioeconomic status, overcrowding or large family size, paternal criminality, maternal psychiatric disorder, and foster placement) significantly increases a child’s chances of developing serious problems.

A cautionary note is important, as Norman Garmezy warns, when discussing the concepts of adversity or risk on the one hand and resilience on the other. The danger lies in the popularization of the concept of resilience in the popular media and lore. The trivialization of the concept could lead to a Horatio Alger mythology or to an “American Dream” notion of success: anyone can succeed if they work hard and have the right set of traits and attitudes. Another danger would be the mistaken belief that adversity in early life is a necessary or a sufficient condition for future success or leadership; luck and chance also affect the outcomes in significant and unpredictable ways. The keys to understanding lie both within the individual and in the situational context.43



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