After reviewing a range of studies that observed leadership behavior in people, as well as non-human mammals ranging from dolphins to chimpanzees, a group of researchers led by Jennifer Smith of Mills College in Oakland, CA, came to surprising conclusion: Regardless of whether you have two legs or four (or even just fins), experience matters more than charisma when it comes to winning leadership roles.
There were some exceptions—spotted hyenas, for example, inherit the role of pack leader—but for the most part, the critters whose personalities or family connections made them stand out from the crowd were not the ones who ended up on top. Animals with experience, particularly elephants, “are considered repositories of knowledge,” Smith says. “They have a lot of wisdom that they bring to decisions, and it appears that their followers are gaining some benefit by following someone who’s informed.” (In spite of the current presidential campaign, the fact that elephants scored high in this study’s power rankings was coincidental, and there were no donkeys in the study for comparison, Smith adds.)
For the paper, published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Smith and her co-authors had to first define what leadership is. Although biologists often disagree on that point, Smith says, they chose to define it as the ability to influence many types of group behavior. So they looked for evidence of leadership in complex activities such as food acquisition and conflict mediation, rather than just focusing on simple tasks like moving from place to place. “We wanted to push the boundaries of biology,” Smith says. “We were interested in more complicated forms of leadership that are more like what you see in complex political systems.”
They found a fair amount of variation, at least among non-human animals. Lions, for example, are quite egalitarian: They share their prey, and they rarely intervene when fights break out in their pride. When there’s a conflict with another pride, no single leader emerges to resolve the conflict—instead the strategy depends on the context.
Hyenas, on the other hand, are selfish and hierarchical most of the time, but they band together when the group’s survival is at stake, Smith says. “There’s such a clear pecking order. If you’re only worried about your personal gain, you can achieve success,” she says. “But hyenas are also the most successful carnivore in Kenya because they do cooperate a lot in warfare.”
And though it’s common to hear the word “dominance” bandied about in assessing candidates’ debate performances, dominant behaviors matter much less in the human world than they do among packs of animals, the study found. In addition to behavior among non-human animals, the researchers scrutinized people who are members of eight “small-scale societies,” including the Inuits of Canada and the Tsimane of the Bolivian Amazon. In those societies, they found, possessing specialized skills mattered much more than dominance in creating leaders.
The idea of dominance is so foreign to some societies, in fact, that “if you ask them who is dominant, they have no concept of what you mean,” Smith says. “There are leaders, but there are a lot of group decisions being made, rather than one guy saying ‘this is the way it is.’”
So what’s the bottom line for the candidates? “In political systems there’s always tension between personal interests and the benefits that the entire society that you represent could potentially gain,” Smith says. “The leadership structures that should be most successful are those that are highly equitable in how followers benefit. When dominance is the only way, you have a very inequitable, skewed distribution of wealth.”
Της Arlene Weintraub – Forbes.com