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Darwinism, leadership and the blind pelican

On the news this morning was yet another report bemoaning the fact that top bosses had awarded themselves compensation packages through 2006 that vastly outstripped the pay increases, proportionally (and, of course, in pure financial terms), of the people who work for them.

“It shows a lack of leadership” said the expert commentator who compiled the report. That it does. But, I’ve been thinking about Darwinism and leadership lately and the traditional interpretation of Darwin helps explain a lot about traditional forms of leadership and the organizational cultures they create, including the tendency to over self-reward.

Command and control leadership is alpha male leadership (wth very few exceptions). A male fights his way to the top of the organization and rules. Others compete with each other for a place in the pecking order.

It’s survival of the fittest and power and wealth to the winners. Failure is associated with weakness, with not being fit to thrive. But, this is actually a crude misinterpretation of how a species, organization, group, survives and thrives.

As I read in The Gift (a powerful book I am slowly ploughing through: see bottom left for a link), when Kropotkin and others looked at the same data as Darwin, they didn’t see competition as a fight to the finish or for dominance. Kropotkin was drawn to Darwin’s own observation of the blind pelican who was fed fish by other pelicans in his flock.

A number of evolutionary biologists consider Darwin’s notion of competition as too unsophisticated, as incomplete. Lynn Margulis, for example, argues strongly that co-operation (endosymbiosis in evolutionary jargon) is key.

“Life did not take over the globe by combat but by networking,” she contends*. As with organisms, organizations (and individuals within them) that co-operate with others often out-compete those that do not.

Similarly, in a networked world, most leaders will succeed by building relationships, by networking. The power is located within the network, within the community. It is because we are networked as never before that old style leadership is in crisis.

*Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors. Summit Books, New York, 1986.

PS Scroll up for a free sample chapter from my new book, The 60 Second Leader, that looks into the consequent attitudes to ‘Leadership and Failure’ – why failure is associated with weakness.

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