The Evolutionary Psychology of Leadership

The article talks about the evolutionary psychology of leadership. It explains the theory of evolutionary leadership (ELT) and uses it to explain three major barriers to effective leadership in organizations. In this summary, a brief discussion of leadership theory’s evolutionary psychology and its assumptions will be given. Also, it will discuss the three barriers to effective leadership that the article discusses.

Brief Discussion of the ELT assumptions

To understand leadership, the ELT applies biology and behavioral ecology principles from an evolutionary psychology perspective. Evolutionary psychology assumes that the human mind results from natural selection evolution (Vugt & Ronay, 2013). Also, it contends that the human mind possesses psychological mechanisms that enable it to solve problems. Examples of such mechanisms are; mating, collaboration, self-protection, and conflict resolution, among others. The article defines leadership in terms of how individuals come together to accomplish joint or common goals.

It also states that leadership evolved from social movements that needed decisions. For instance, if people come together and find the need to go somewhere, where they decide to go and when a decision and the person is who determines is a leader. Hence, social movements give rise to leadership.  “A deceptively simple decision rule such as “follow the individual that moves first” can lead to leaders. Besides, if we assume individual differences in who is fast in doing something, leaders and followers will create leaders and followers (van Vugt, 2006). The quote clearly shows that movements or social groups produce leaders.

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Barriers to Effective Leadership

One of the barriers that ELT explains is a mismatch between modern and ancestral environments. As human beings and all organisms evolve, the environment also changes. Due to the changes that occur, these organisms’ traits to before may mismatch with their current environment. The differences that emerge between the modern and ancestral environments causes mismatches in the aspects of human psychology. For instance, in the decision-making process, among others. The mismatch that exists between human psychology and dealing with challenges in the current society is what causes problems in leadership. In this case, a leader’s mind may be far behind what contemporary society is undergoing; hence that leader cannot lead effectively.

Secondly, biases in selection and decision making is another barrier that ELT explains. The theory conceives that leaders may be chosen based on the qualities they possess. Some people show qualities that may threaten their leading capabilities, yet they cannot lead in reality. For example, being overconfident may indicate that someone is a great leader, but being overconfident may be considered ineffective in leadership. Hence, selecting leaders and making decisions based on threatening traits is a barrier to leadership. Specialists in leadership go ahead and add a lack of self-awareness, failure from experience, and inflated self-evaluations as traits that lead to biases besides overconfidence (Hogan, Hogan, & Kaiser, 2010).

Lastly, psychological adaptations for dominance is another barrier. The assumption is that humans have psychologically evolved to dominate and exploit others. People always want to lead others and dominate. Traditionally, the dominance of an individual attracted leadership; today, prestige and respect attract leadership. The evolution of humans has replaced dominance with prestige and respect. Through people selecting leaders based on prestige and respect, leadership has been altered because some of these leaders lack the necessary skills required for effective leadership, hence becoming a barrier. It is crucial to select leaders based on leadership skills. Organizations can emulate how Gore Tax chooses leaders. The company has an employee turnover of 5% (Wassenaar & Pearce, 2012), has an original method of choosing their leaders, including the CEO.



Hogan, J., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2010). Management derailment. American Psychological Association Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 3, 555–575.

Van Vugt, M. (2006). The evolutionary origins of leadership and followership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 354–372.

Vugt, M. V., & Ronay, R. (2013). The evolutionary psychology of leadership. Organizational Psychology Review4(1), 74-95. doi:10.1177/2041386613493635

Wassenaar, C. L., & Pearce, C. L. (2012). The nature of shared leadership. In D. Day & J. Antonakis (Eds.), The nature of leadership (pp. 363–392). London, UK: Sage.