Why Good Leaders Last Longer


Last month Dr Goodall and I spoke with business audiences and she shared (as she did in 2008) an observation about chimpanzee leaders. Good leaders tend to survive as leaders for around 8-10 years, whereas the tyrants last for only about two years.

I asked her why. She outlined two reasons. First, with the good leader-one who ensures ‘social harmony'-there is a relaxed mood amongst the followers and a lack of interest in replacing him (always a ‘him' for chimps). With the tyrants-the bullies who rule by intimidation-there is an undercurrent to remove him and rival males are more easily able to form a coalition of allies to move against the incumbent.

Followers do get to have a say in the chimp world. At Sydney's Taronga Zoo the long-reigning alpha male Lubutu is now in his 10th year as leader. He is a ‘good' leader with the strong support of his followers-the six adult females and their older kids. A few months ago when we were at the zoo with a group of business leaders almost all the chimps were cut, bruised and limping. The keepers explained that a few days before there had been a nasty fight. Lubutu had been attacked by one of the rival males intent on taking the alpha position. It was the females, the followers, who intervened, putting themselves in harm's way to defend Lubutu and encourage him to stay as their leader. That's quite a vote of support. No doubt from a species survival strategy, the females sense the environment which most benefits the bearing and raising of offspring.

The second reason that Dr Goodall shared about why good leaders last longer is that the rest of the community is simply inclined to actually follow him. One of the observable ‘follower' moments is embarking on border patrols. Chimps are fiercely protective of their territory and every week or so the adult males conduct border patrols. Dr Jane gives the example of a good leader, Figan. When Figan decided to embark on a border patrol, the other males would willingly follow.

She compared Figan with Frodo, a bully. When Frodo decided to undertake a border inspection, the rest of the gang would not voluntarily follow. They were conscripts in any such undertaking, forced to go against their will.

Followership in Organisations

One of the follower options wild chimps don't have that we do is the ‘stay or leave' option. Apart from unattached females, adult chimps can't leave their territory. If they do so they are likely to be killed by their neighbours.

For us in organisations, the stay or leave option is a proxy for satisfaction with the leader. What style of manager is most likely to cause people to exercise the exit option?

A team of researchers looked at three leadership styles: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire. The different leader styles were exercised while students engaged in a six-person group investment task with the objective of earning a bonus. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three leadership conditions.

In the autocratic condition, the group leader said, "In order to ensure you win the group bonus, I will automatically remove the start-up money from four of you. I will not consult with anyone about my decision, so you will not have a say in whether you make an investment decision or not..."

In the democratic condition, the group leader said, "In order to ensure that you win the group bonus please let me know whether you are willing to contribute or not. I will then remove contributions from four of those who have volunteered. If not enough people volunteer, however, I will have to remove the start-up money from someone who has not volunteered, just to make sure four people invest their money..."

In the laissez-faire condition, the group leader said, "For each task let me know whether you are willing to contribute, and I will remove the start-up money from those of you who have volunteered. Hopefully, at least four people will make a contribution to each task."

All groups were successful at their task and gained their bonus.

At the end of what the followers thought was stage one of the exercise, the followers were given the option of staying with their group or joining a different group. They were told that staying would mean working under the same leader again, whereas leaving would mean working in a group with no leader. By a long margin, the highest departure was from groups led by the autocratic leader (36% or 11 out of 30 members) compared to the other two conditions combined (7% or 4 out of 57 members). The researchers concluded that, "In fact, the proportion of leavers in the autocratic condition was so high that many groups would have failed because they lost the critical number of group members needed to produce the good." (Source: Mark van Vugt et al, "Autocratic leadership in social dilemmas: A threat to group stability" in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 40 (2004) 1-13.)

Actions for Organisations

A key way that we deny nature is that rather than allowing followers to nominate and endorse their leader, leaders are appointed by a senior person. As a consequence, a manager has to invest mainly in managing up to retain that patronage and can be less concerned about managing down. Staff engagement, energy and productivity suffer.

There are several levers that can be pulled to enable followers to have their natural influence.

Action 1 relates to your staff engagement survey. Design your survey so that you report engagement down to the immediate manager level (not just at a departmental level). And then add to your survey the following three questions:

Q1: To what extent are you happy for your immediate manager to remain as the leader of your team?
Q2: To what extent are you happy for your department manager (business unit manager) to remain as the leader of your department?
Q3: To what extent are you happy for the CEO to remain as the leader of this organisation?

Action 2 relates to managers. Act as though you face re-election and need the support of your followers for you to continue as their leader.

Action 3 is for senior leaders. Communicate that one of your expectations is that managers have the following of their people and that you are prepared to insist on that outcome.

By pulling some simple levers we restore the desired natural state where a leader serves their group, not their masters.

Andrew O'Keeffe



Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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