What makes a good leader?

This week scientists have picked apart the qualities needed to make a good leader in both humans and the animal kingdom.
09 November 2015

Interview with 

Ginny Smith, Science communicator


Do you have what it takes to be a good leader? The traits looked for in people in a Meerkatpower aren't too far different from the traits found in animal leaders too, scientists announced this week. Ginny Smith explained to Kat Arney how you get to be king of the jungle...

Ginny - Well, I've seen a really interesting study that looks at how animals choose their leaders and whether they do it in the same way that humans do. So, this was a study published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution and they used a mixture of mathematical models and experimental studies to examine that question. They got together experts in a huge range of different disciplines from loads of different universities including Oxford and California. They examined a range of different animals. So they looked at elephants, dolphins, lions, chimps, meerkats, zebras, hyenas, and capuchin monkeys. They compared them with 8 different human societies who live in groups ranging from 10 to 25,000 people. So, they were looking at how these different societies chose their leaders because they're all societies that live in groups. They have to make decisions about where to move to, where to forage to find food, how to resolve conflicts. So, they all need leaders of some kind.

Kat - But meerkats don't vote, so how are they choosing their leaders?

Ginny - Well interestingly, there weren't that many differences particularly when you looked at how the leaders became leaders. Okay, so there isn't a voting system but in most of the animal societies and most of the human societies, it's based on the individuals with the best skills. It's based on experience. As those individuals gain experience, gain more skills, they become leaders. There are a couple of interesting exceptions. There was one human society and then also hyenas where leadership is inherited. It's automatically the daughter of the previous hyena leader who becomes the leader and I guess, that's a bit more like our royal family for instance. But I think what's really interesting is that actually, there were more differences within the two groups, within the groups of non-human animals, and within the groups of humans than there were between the two groups. One difference was that actually, human leaders surprisingly tend to be less powerful than animal leaders. So the leader of the animal groups tend to wield more control and more power than our human leaders do, except for one area which was in food gathering. This was another area where there was a big difference in that the non-human animals tend to find their own food and keep it whereas in a human society, the food is all shared so the leaders then have a bit more influence on where that shared food goes.

Kat - So, you can either eat or you can have like a skilled leader.

Ginny - I think that's maybe stretching a little bit too far, but those were two areas where there were some differences.


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