Naturally Selected? Clues about Leadership from the Animal World

By Mark van Vugt

When thinking of a “successful executive”, we often use the description of an “alpha”, most of the time a male one, too. In this article, Professor van Vugt shares interesting leadership clues and patterns from the animal world which are undeniably useful to human leadership. From dominance-prestige orientation, leader benefits, to gender comparisons, we are asked, “Would you rather be led by an alpha male, a queen bee, or a wise elephant?”


To get into the C-suite, is it better to possess the qualities of an alpha primate, a king of the jungle, a queen bee or a wise old owl? People tend to be quick to make comparisons between human leaders and their animal equivalents. But how useful is that comparison? What does leadership look like in animal societies, and what does it tell us about how we should run our businesses?


Leadership and Evolution

To find out, we went on a unique scientific expedition to compare leadership in human societies with that of various non-human societies. “We” are a multi-disciplinary research team of biologists, primatologists, anthropologists, and psychologists, who are experts on leadership in one particular species, be it humans, chimpanzees, hyenas, or meerkats. We met as part of a scientific workshop on leadership, organised by the National Institute for Mathematics and Synthetic Biology at the University of Tennessee.

Because the biological and social sciences use different definitions of leadership, a first hurdle was how to define it. We settled on leadership as having a differential influence on group activities, with leaders having more influence than followers.

By taking an evolutionary approach, it is immediately obvious that there may be parallels between leadership in humans and in nonhumans, particularly for species that, like us, pursue group activities.

The second hurdle was to understand the why’s of leadership. As evolutionary scientists, our claim is that leadership is the result of a Darwinian process of evolution via natural selection whereby groups of animals – be it mammals, insects, birds or fish – that form effective leader-follower relations do better than groups that fail to coordinate around a leader. By taking an evolutionary approach, it is immediately obvious that there may be parallels between leadership in humans and in nonhumans, particularly for species that, like us, pursue group activities. For instance, the chimpanzee, our closest genetic relative – with whom we shared a common ancestor some 6 million years ago – go on border patrols to defend their territory against other communities. Small groups of males move to the periphery of their range and scan the environment for intruders and if they find one they will hurt or even kill them. Some chimps are more likely to lead such patrols than others and they have more status and mating success in their community.

The third hurdle was our selection of animal societies to draw comparisons with. Because of genetic relatedness we settled on 8 mammalian societies such as chimpanzees, dolphins, meerkats, elephants, chimpanzees, lions and hyenas where displays of leadership are well-documented by biologists. For instance, the African elephant lives in herds of about 25-50 individuals and these consist of various clans of related females. The matriarch is the oldest adult female in the group and she is primarily responsible for leadership.

Given that the social structure of these animal societies is simple, with at most two layers of hierarchy, we compared them to 8 small-scale human societies, including hunter-gatherers such as the Ache from Paraguay, the Inuit from Canada, and pastoralists like the Kipsigis from East Africa. These small scale societies are quite similar to the societies in which humans evolved: We humans spent around 99% of our evolutionary history in small, nomadic kin-based groups with no formal leaders, no institutions, and no laws. My own field, evolutionary psychology, takes the position that our brains and bodies reflect this deep history. Should we want to know more about how humans cope with the challenges of modern organisational life (from job stress to E-leadership) then we need to understand more about the kinds of organisational structures of early humans.

After taking these initial hurdles we embarked on the actual research by collecting data about these 16 societies from scientific papers and ethnographies, and consulting leading experts.

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How Does Leadership Compare Across the Animal World?

First, we documented the kinds of group activities in which leaders emerged across these societies. The most common leader activity is group movement. So when a group moves from one place to the other such as zebras on the savanna or dolphins in the open sea differences in the influence that individuals have on the direction of the move become apparent. Another group activity where differences in leadership emerge is in the acquisition of food and other resources. When lions move in on prey, some individuals are more likely to attack first, thus incurring great personal risks. Another domain in which leadership occurs is in conflict mediation within a group. For example, when two or more chimpanzees from the same community fight, one individual – usually the alpha male – steps in and breaks the dispute, offering support to the loser. Finally, in various human and nonhuman societies, individuals take on the role of leaders in intergroup conflict. The Cheyenne, a native American tribe from the Great Plains, have war and peace leaders and different men occupy these roles. War leaders are young, brave, aggressive men who lead raids against other tribes, whereas the peace leaders are older men from esteemed families in the tribe.


Leading from the Front or the Back

Second, within these domains we examined more closely what types of leaders emerged. Two broad leadership styles are apparent. The commonest style is where one individual initiates an action and others in the group copy that move. For instance, in travel decisions in baboons one individual makes a move into a certain direction, and waits for the others to follow. If they don’t the individual retreats back to the group, and the bidding process continues. We can label this style as leading from the front, where leaders are role models whose actions are being imitated. The alternative style is leading from the back where one individual, say the dominant, steps in to punish individuals that undermine group cohesion (such as conflict meditation in chimpanzees or in spotted hyenas).

The third question is how leadership in human and nonhuman societies compares along various structural dimensions. For instance, is leadership shared between several individuals (democratic) or is there a single leader per group (despotic)? Does leadership generalise across domains, from group movement to peacekeeping, or is it domain-specific? And, do leaders benefit relatively more from joint action or not? To address this we coded the 16 societies on key aspects of leadership using a numerical system. For instance, if leadership is distributed across all members of the group we gave a score of “1”, when there were a few individuals constantly leading, we scored a “3” and when leadership was conducted by one single individual, we scored a “5”.


Human Leaders are Less Powerful and More Specialised

One conclusion from this analysis is that leaders are more powerful in some domains than in others. For instance in conflict mediation and intergroup conflict leadership is less shared and more concentrated in one individual. Furthermore, leaders in human societies are not as powerful as they are in animal societies. Whereas dominance is an important characteristic in many animal species, in small scale human societies leadership is based more on prestige, persuasion, and knowledge. Human hunter-gatherer groups have many levelling mechanisms in place to curtail the powers of any overbearing individuals. They can form counter-coalitions against their leaders or they can leave the group and join another. A third difference is that leadership in the human societies appears to be less general and more domain-specific. For instance, humans have separate leaders for hunting, warfare, foraging, and peacekeeping, but such specialised role divisions are not as strong in non-humans.

Similarities are also worth noting. For instance, across human and nonhuman societies there is great variation in how much leaders benefit from coordinated action. For instance, in lions the one going first into a battle against another lion pride is the one taking the greatest risks and is not being compensated in any way. In human societies, followers have all kinds of mechanisms to ensure that their leaders do not profit disproportionally, like gossip or collective punishment. Finally, across the spectrum of species, leadership is based more on individual achievement than leadership being ascribed by birth (an exception are the spotted hyenas where natal female inherit their status position).


What Makes a Good Leader in the Animal Kingdom?

Leaders in human societies are not as powerful as they are in animal societies. Whereas dominance is an important characteristic in many animal species, in small scale human societies leadership is based more on prestige, persuasion, and knowledge.

So what makes a good leader? There is unfortunately not a single answer to this as different species live in different ecologies and have different problems to solve for which they require different kinds of leaders. The lesson here is that it would be good to distribute leadership roles among different individuals with different qualities. Nevertheless, Individuals who are more energetic, extravert, impatient, bold, adventurous and ambitious are more likely to be leadership material. Another factor is age. We find a systematic correlation between age and leadership, which is mediated by experience. Among the African elephants the most senior female leads troop movement, presumably because they have relevant local knowledge where to find a waterhole. Seniority is also beneficial for having strong alliances with other group members. The equivalent in humans is the old boys’ network. Nevertheless, younger individuals sometimes lead activities that involve great physical risks and stamina such as exploring new resources (entrepreneurship) or encountering dangerous enemies. Leadership also correlates with one’s position in the hierarchy of the group. Alpha males and (in some species like hyenas) alpha females take on leadership roles in various domains although leading by dominance and brute force is not appreciated across the board. Finally, competence matters. Leadership is such a key mechanism for the survival of a group that both human and nonhuman societies cannot afford to make many mistakes in who they follow as leaders. This is why leadership is often distributed in groups and why leadership is more prestige-based than dominance-based.


Male versus Female Leadership

By comparing leadership between human and nonhuman societies, I have tried to show that maybe there is nothing unique about human leadership. Yet there are many remaining questions. One puzzling finding is that we find many instances of female leadership in the animal world (such as in elephants and hyenas) but in human societies male leadership still appears the norm. Understanding the social-ecological conditions for the emergence of female leadership could be an important avenue for further inquiry. Second, we restricted ourselves to small scale human societies, and these are more egalitarian than modern complex organisations (such as businesses). In some ways, the business world may be more similar to a chimpanzee community with more powerful, coercive leadership and leaders that benefit more than followers from group activity. It could be useful to study small scale human societies – the social organisations in which humans evolved – more closely to understand the conditions favouring shared and egalitarian leadership. Finally, what accounts for the transition in humans from small scale societies to more complex, stratified societies that paved the way for the modern business environment? This question has preoccupied philosophers from Hobbes to Marx. And why have only humans – apart from the social insects – been able to construe such large, complex societies? The evolution of human culture and language may be part of the answer, because it enabled humans to coordinate the actions of thousands and millions of people via single leaders – think of the Nazi rallies, the speeches of Obama, or Covey’s 7 Habits. Comparative research into leadership enables us to answer fundamental questions about the why and how of leadership. Our follower instincts may not be so different from that of our distant cousins in the animal world. Please consider this when selecting a new senior member to the C-suite. Would you rather be led by an alpha male, a queen bee, or a wise elephant?


Featured Image: Hyenas in the grasslands of Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda © Getty Images


About the Author

Mark van Vugt is a Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Work and Organisational Psychology at VU University Amsterdam and a Research Associate at the University of Oxford. He can be reached by email at; twitter: @markvanvugt1;  homepage:



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