Read Time: 7 minutes
*Writing in a personal capacity. All opinions are my own.
The quality of the leadership around us used to be about more than a pay rise, more than a title, more than a seat at the table. In many ways, the essence of what it means to be an effective leader remains the same now as it did thousands of years ago, yet equally, somewhere along the line, in the eyes of many, leadership lost its way. Using our biological evolution, and lessons from past and present, can we, as a culture, look to mould a future defined by the positive qualities of its leaders, and the inevitable reverberations throughout our ever-changing world.
The past three or four generations have yielded their fair share of leaders from both sides of the coin. Some to be respected, revered and adored, with others pasted with such intense contempt as to elicit an almost palpable sense of disgust. In an almighty oversimplification, I feel like the chief difference between the two is the use, or abuse, of responsibility. We put trust in our leaders, faith, and in many cases, the weight of our hopes and dreams for a brighter future. What they do with this responsibility ultimately decides their fate in the eyes of their followers.
Thousands of years ago, the literature suggests, leadership was largely about one thing and one thing only…keeping people safe. Simon Sinek (2014) refers to it as “the circle of safety.” Could a person use their skills and experience to keep their community safe from harm, survival at its simplest. Leadership, however, went way beyond the abilities of any one individual. As we know now, yes, it’s about safety and protection, can this person help me if I get into a jam, but it’s also largely about trust and cooperation. Can the assigned leader relate to the issues of the wider community, at the most fundamental, human level, and get people to work together towards a solution? This is the essence of leadership, it’s progress, a forward step, the evolution of the species, and wow, it feels good!
The reason it feels so damn good is no coincidence, it’s all in our biology. At any one moment, we have several neurotransmitters coursing through our bodies, guiding our feelings and experiences. After we exercise, we get a release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, we feel good, and thus are more likely to exercise again. The same thing happens on a macro scale in our social and personal interactions. When we achieve a personal goal, we get a release of endorphins and dopamine, we feel good about ourselves. When we connect with others, serotonin and oxytocin get their shot, driving us towards making more connections in our community. An effective leader sees the need for both, the need for personal achievement, and the power of integration, of teamwork. An effective leader also respects their role in the reduction of another neurotransmitter, cortisol. Cortisol rises when we’re stressed. Whether it’s the threat of sabertooth tiger, or a merger at work, elevated cortisol stresses us out, can inhibit our immune systems, cause us to gain weight, and even shorten our life expectancy if persistently elevated. It’s the leader’s responsibility to douse the fires that cortisol ignites. A happier community is a healthier, and thus more effective community.
Again, the past three or four generations have seen many examples where leadership’s taken a nose dive, where the fundamentals of human nature appear to have taken a vacation, and greed and a desire for power have taken up the reigns. A yearning for the throne, and a neglect of the responsibilities of the position.
There does, however, appear to have been a shift, of late, if you know where to look. Instances of people picking up the slack, identifying the pitfalls of the past, and evolving our ancestral need for trust, cooperation, and connection in an altogether more altruistic sense of leadership, the servant to the people, the champion of a cause.
Sport has its fair share of great examples, and I’m going to use the most successful sports team in history, the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Union team. Hearing any of their players, past or present, talk about the culture of the team, one thing is very clear, they work for a purpose bigger than any one person. They work for the group, for each other, and for the silver fern on the jersey. Record breaking ex-All Blacks captain, Richie McCaw, speaks of the bond cultivated between players, all working towards a common goal, and in his former role as captain, there to set an example, and also to serve his players, to be there for them in support. To lead, and also to follow.
This brings me to of one of my favourite photographs, the wolf pack, trailing through the snow. If you haven’t seen this image before, more traditional views of leadership might suggest that the wolf at the very front is the leader, the alpha of the pack. In truth, however, it’s the exact opposite. The wolf at the back, seemingly lagging behind, is the alpha wolf. A prime vantage point from which to watch over the whole pack, the young, the old, the sick, everyone has his attention. This way he can have full view of the road ahead, as well as the health and progress of the pack. The alpha wolf, a servant of the pack, leading from behind.
The word alpha, certainly over the past few decades at least, has taken on a persona that prides ego, the individual over the group, a push down to get up mentality. Well, we’re all about shifting perspectives at DU, and someone like women’s rights campaigner, Malala Yousafzai, is just the kind of inspirational person to do that.
If you haven’t read Malala’s story, then do. Living in Pakistan, she began blogging for the BBC when she was 11 years-old, about the closure of girls’ schools where she lived, at the hands of the Taliban. After campaigning that all girls be given the right to education, Malala was shot by the Taliban when she was 15. On her recovery, she persisted in her mission to get an education for all girls in Pakistan, and in 2017 became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Now 21, Malala continues to work with the United Nations, and serves through her foundation, the Malala Fund, “working for a world where all girls can learn and lead without fear.” Alpha indeed.
So, what’s the difference? What separates the great leaders from the ones we’d rather forget? In his book ‘Primal Leadership,’ author Daniel Goleman, PhD, gives us a clue. Goleman sites a large-scale study based around a competence analysis of some of many of the world’s largest and most successful companies, from IBM to British Airways. The study analysed the roles of those in senior leadership positions, and found that in a whopping 85% of cases, the difference between becoming an “average performer,” and a “star performer,” was the presence of EI, emotional intelligence. While IQ was a strong predictor of success in the infancy of a person’s time in a senior leadership role, EI faired far better in the long run, with Goleman suggesting that companies with senior leaders higher in emotional intelligence stand a better chance of long term success. The importance of EI in leadership is supported by a whole heap of research, as well as the work of TED superstar and author of the ‘Leaders Eat Last,’ Simon Sinek.
EI is the ability to recognize, understand and manage/influence our own emotions, and the emotions of others. In short, there’s no quiz you can do online that’s going to develop it, no gadgets, no apps. It’s about taking the time, taking the time to be present with yourself, perhaps to meditate, but more than anything, to notice, to develop an awareness, a meta-perspective of yourself. The title of Kethledge and Erwin’s great book, ‘Lead Yourself First,’ says it perfectly. Create the space to consider your own emotions as they happen, and learn in your reflections. The more you can do that for yourself, I think you’ll find the more it starts to happen with others. I’m sure many of us know what it feels like to be barked at, treated like a sounding board, and hopefully, many of us know the opposite. Talking to someone, feeling them make the effort to hear our voice, to understand and appreciate our perspective, to see us for who we are, what a gift to give.
Ultimately, the first step, the most important step, is to get to know you.
“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” – Socrates
Written by: Alex Easby
‘Leaders Eat Last’ – Simon Sinek
‘Primal Leadership’ – Daniel Goleman
‘Lead Yourself First’ – Raymond M. Kethledge, Michael S. Erwin