Review - Books - Power walk leaves others in its wake

4th February 2011 at 00:00

Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters

By Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja

Profile Books


Have you ever been walking along a corridor with your headteacher and found yourself struggling to keep up? Or have you ever given a member of your leadership team some shattering news only to have difficulty reading their expression?

If you have answered yes to either of these questions, chances are you have had personal experience of some of the curious phenomena of leadership: those who acquire power are transformed by it, and not just in a spiritual way. They also walk faster and become less emotionally expressive.

And that is not all. Leaders also become more optimistic about the future, although this might be because of the perks. Those in lower ranks laugh and cry more often. These are some of the fascinating asides in Selected, Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja's analysis of what turns some people into leaders, and why others are happy to remain followers.

Although it is not specifically about school leaders, its application to education settings is obvious. It is a useful primer for anyone who aspires to leadership in schools. Established leaders will see themselves in the descriptions and school governors will find much to interest them, not least in recognising the homogenised views of leadership spouted in interviews by graduates of the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) course.

Selected also allows middle leaders in schools and those who monitor their work to reflect on why the role is such a difficult one. The authors argue it is because ancestral tribes never practised middle management. Their evolutionary leadership theory (ELT) aims to show that our brains have tunnel vision, based on the experiences of our ancestors, when it comes to leadership psychology.

Van Vugt and Ahuja set out to explain - but not excuse - the primitive prejudices that enable some to become leaders and others not. In exploring failed leadership, they describe their "mismatch hypothesis": the belief that our brains still house a set of emotional triggers and templates that is taken in by those who shout the loudest, and can blind us to better candidates with proven competence.

In their synthesis of leadership theories, they provide a clue about why some who enter teaching later emerge as leaders of teachers: the "babble effect", in which the chattiest person in a group is seen informally as the group leader. Talkativeness is linked with leadership potential, regardless of the usefulness or relevance of the information.

But a strength of this book is the analysis devoted to followership. The authors dip into the school playground for displays of dominance, showing how children in the early years will often ignore the braying bully to trail the most popular child in the class. Teenage rebellion is explained as merely switching allegiance rather than abandoning an innate tendency to follow. Maternal and paternal influences - or their absence - may cause children to follow two different paths: deviancy and downfall or power.

ELT has much to say about followership. It sets out three reasons why some people become followers: group cohesion, uncertainty and the possibility of emulation. It also helpfully reminds us of five extreme "strategies to overcome the powerful" (STOPs) for followers who want to be led rather than dominated. These include gossip, satire, disobedience and desertion. All of these will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a school staffroom. The fifth is assassination, which, thankfully, is less common.

The authors turn to football to highlight the pressures placed on "rainbow leaders" - those who are good at everything. While Sir Alex Ferguson has been a phenomenally successful manager of Manchester United FC, he was a mediocre player. By the same token, it is worth considering whether it matters if a head was an average teacher.

Selected also claims that we tend to choose people like ourselves to be our leaders. Sometimes this works, but the authors point out that occasional success should not blind us to the flaws apparent in this process. "Sometimes, the most competent leader is a different colour, a different gender or a different social class from us," they claim, "and yet our evolved psychology prevents us from fully embracing this fact."

This book provides a timely reminder of how leaders should behave at a time when resources in our schools are likely to become scarce. It is provocative about the thinking that should underpin the selection of a new generation of leaders and warns us not to overrate the romance of leadership. Unsung and successful leaders understand that great leadership today is about more than one figurehead.

Van Vugt and Ahuja provide lessons in natural leadership in an entertaining and accessible style. In tempering our appetite for the biographies of business gurus, they state a key belief that modern leaders deserve less credit and blame for their actions than their early predecessors on the savannah, where good decisions meant the difference between life and death.

"Leaders today often operate as part of a coalition or follow orders from above, meaning the trail of responsibility is more opaque," the authors state. Perhaps it is time to stop praising our leaders to the skies when things go right, or heaping all the blame on them when things go wrong.


Mark van Vugt is professor of psychology at the VU University Amsterdam. He is research fellow at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University and honorary professor at Kent University.

Anjana Ahuja has a PhD in space physics from Imperial College, London. She was a feature writer and columnist for The Times for 16 years and introduced her co-author's work to a wider audience.

The verdict: 910.

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