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Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership
Max Beilby
Max Beilby
is a Management and Organizational Psychologist and author of the Darwinian Business blog.

Editor’s note: TVOL has initiated a Book of the Month Club for members of the TVOL1000, with Naturally Selected the featured book for the month of February. Max Beilby will moderate discussion on the TVOL1000 Facebook page, culminating in a Webinar with author Mark Van Vugt at the end of the month. To join the TVOL1000, please go here. For more about the Book of the Month Club, go here.

Malcom Gladwell polled Fortune’s top 500 companies for his 2005 book Blink, and found the average height of male CEOs was just under 6 ft, but the average American male is 5 ft 9 inches. Around 58% of these CEOs were 6 ft or taller, whereas 14.5% of men in the US population are this tall. Approximately 30% of these CEOs were 6 ft 2 inches or taller, compared with just 3.9% of American adult men.

Fully 94.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are male (Fairchild, 2015).

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This is not just an American phenomenon, similar stats are revealed elsewhere. For example, 94.5% of the FTSE’s top 100 company CEOs are men (UK Government, 2011).

The same preferences are revealed in political leadership.

For example, height is a partial predictor of victory in US presidential campaigns. Since the beginning of the 20th century, nearly 70% of the presidential campaigns between the two major parties have been won by the taller candidate (Sun, 2016). Despite Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote in the 2016 election, we are yet to see a female US president.

Also, overweight presidential candidates are extremely unlikely to be victorious. The last morbidly obese US president was William Howard Taft, back in 1909 (with a BMI of 42.3)

Why do we overwhelming choose tall men as our leaders?
Traditional leadership theory cannot explain these seemingly irrelevant correlations with gender, height, weight and health. They are deemed spurious correlations, or social constructs.

Popular science books such as Gladwell’s Blink scratch the surface- it is our unconscious biases that explain our fondness of tall masculine leaders. However, these popular writings don’t identify the roots of our prejudice. One has to ask, why do we have these unconscious biases in the first place?

In Naturally Selected, psychology professor Mark van Vugt and science writer Anjana Ahuja note that despite the trillions of words written on leadership, few have addressed the ‘why’ of leadership. “This gaping hole must be plugged if we are to truly understand the human instinct to lead and the accompanying instinct to follow.” (p. 17). To understand our leadership and followship psychology, van Vugt and Ahuja urge us to revisit our ancestral past- to head back to the African Savannah.

The Savannah Hypothesis
A convergence of evidence from fields such as anthropology and paleobiology has painted a picture of what life was like for our distant ancestors.

Before the advent of agriculture, food was scarce. The food that was obtained was either foraged or hunted – our ancestors were physically active. We were also prey – predators roamed the Savannah and posed a serious threat to life. Violence and warfare was unfathomably high compared to rates in modern society (see Pinker, 2011). People lived not in towns or in mega-cities, but in tight bands maxing 150, and rarely encountering outsiders (see Dunbar, 2010). The technologies and organisations of modern society did not exist – no hierarchy or formal recruitment processes to select the most competent leaders.

In the light of the environment our distant ancestors faced for 2 million years before the advent of agriculture, our preferences for tall, physically fit males as leaders makes a lot of sense. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja (p. 164):

“For leadership activities requiring physical strength and stamina, such as group hunting and warfare, our ancestors would have wanted the physically fittest man for the job (in retrospect, a wise judgement, because you are a testament to their success). Height, weight and health would have pointed to fitness.”

Essentially, we’re continuing to select warriors as our leaders.

A running theme in Naturally Selected is that our leadership preferences are an example of a mismatch: traits selected for in our ancestral past that have shaped our psychology, which are misaligned with the demands of the modern world. A core argument is that these mismatches are implicated in leadership failure.

“Today, though, leadership is very rarely about foraging and fighting in 100- strong tribes of blood relatives; it’s about ruling nations of millions (a billion, in the case of China), running multinational corporations with thousands of employees, and rubbing along in a global village where people don’t look and behave the same way as you do. Is it any wonder that the leaders we choose today so often disappoint?” (p. 183).

What is so powerful about evolution is its theoretical parsimony. Evolutionary Leadership Theory reconciles a vast array of previously contradictory theories. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja (p. 18, emphasis added):

From the simplicity of this evolutionary perspective, an astonishing array of disparate, bewildering findings on leadership fall into place. We crave in our leaders maturity in a time of uncertainty, and youth and vibrancy when we ourselves yearn for social change. We want leaders who conform to a certain physical stereotype- because they flick a subconcious switch in our brains that most of us probably don’t even know we have… We might be sophisticated animals in a primate hierarchy, but we, like every other animal we share this planet with, have taken a long, grinding evolutionary path to get here, and our minds are littered with psychological souvenirs of the journey.”

Evolutionary leadership theory can help explain why Donald Trump won the US election. Mark van Vugt and his colleagues’ experimental research demonstrates that when people perceive their group as being in conflict with a rival group, participants overwhelming chose men as their leaders. Conversely during times of peace, participants display a preference for female leadership (van Vugt & Spisak, 2008). Similarly, when presented a choice in the context of war, people display a preference for more physically dominant leaders (van Vugt & Grabo, 2015). Arguably, Donald Trump won the presidential election by exploiting people’s fears through his portrayal of America as under attack (e.g. from terrorists and illegal immigrants).

What motivates leaders?
Why would anyone want to become a leader, with all the responsibility and scrutiny entailed?

Van Vugt and Ahuja are blunt and argue it’s for the ‘three S’s’- salary, status and sex.

To elaborate, leaders accrue greater financial benefits, elevated social status from their position, and greater sexual opportunities (primarily for men- more on this later). The authors note the circular nature of the three S’s. “[T]he ultimate evolutionary aim is reproductive success, which must be achieved through sex, which means catching the eye of sexual partners, which means being a man of status. And how is this status signified today? Through salary. And so, thanks to evolutionary leadership theory, we have a thread linking money to power to sex.” (p. 16).

Power corrupts
Van Vugt and Ahuja note the sordid relationship between leadership and corruption.

Research demonstrates that not only does power induce people to have greater confidence in their abilities and their judgement, powerful people also find it difficult to empathise with others (see Robertson, 2012). The authors cite an innovative experiment: people primed to recall moments of power were asked to write the letter ‘E’ on their foreheads, for others to read it (Galinsky et al, 2006). The power-primed were three times more likely to write the E from their own perspectives (i.e. a reflected E to others… I assume the power-primed participants were not fellow dyslexics).  Beyond this, “[w]ith power comes the potential for abuse, a truism stamped all over human history.” (p. 137).

The circularity of the three S’s also helps explain the prevalence of ‘Dark Triad’ personalities holding societies’ top leadership positions: narcissismpsychopathy and machiavellianism (cf. Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014). Power is probably irresistible to those with pro-self personalities, because it provides opportunities for personal gain. “Let’s not beat around the bush- these guys are bastards. Worst of all, there is plenty of evidence that, in evolutionary terms, it sometimes pays to be a bastard.” (p. 138).

The male drive to compete
Arguably it is not gender per se which leads to the glass ceiling for women, but the overwhelming male impetus to compete. “Status is a major factor in the gender debate: evolution has selected men to be more ambitious and status-obsessed than women because, for them, these behaviours translated into ancestral reproductive success.” (p. 206).

Throughout history and across cultures, women desire high status men with good financial prospects as long term partners (see Buss, 2008). Due to the higher costs of reproduction, women choose resourceful men who can provide for their babies. This ultimately explains why men are so hungry for success.

This is also why the perks of leadership- salary, status, and sex- militate against female leadership. Higher status and wealth doesn’t translate into reproductive success in quite the same way as it does for men. As stated by van Vugt and Ahuja; “These evolved differences in the way men and women view status- men care about it much more than women do- might be responsible for strengthening the already robust bias towards male leaders.” (p. 176).

Van Vugt and Ahuja note that business women are susceptible to fertility problems, presumably from career related stress. However, one can hypothesize that fertility problems are due to professional women delaying their first pregnancy. Additionally, pregnancy and child-rearing arguably place restraints on women’s’ career aspirations. To what extent does this contribute to the glass ceiling? Unfortunately the authors don’t adequately address this.

Van Vugt and Ahuja note that women on average have superior verbal and interpersonal skills, and are more empathic than men: highly valuable abilities in international business and politics. However, subsequent research demonstrates that women succeed in other stereotypically masculine domains, such as investing. For example, a recent study illustrates that women make superior traders on average- women are less likely to over-trade, and they are less inclined to take big risks which can lead to catastrophic failures (Bose et al, 2016).

The authors cite a study by Leeds University Business School, showing that equal gender representation on company boards makes a healthier balance sheet. Just adding one female director on a company board appears to cut a company’s chances of going bust by 20%, and that having two or three female directors lowered the chances of bankruptcy even further (see Ahuja, 2010; UK Government, 2011).

Reviewing the literature of neuropsychology, one can conjecture that women are less susceptible to the corrosive effects of power (see Robertson, 2012).

What can we do about this?
Becoming aware of our cognitive biases throughout the hiring process is a start, but arguably not enough.

The research cited above is instructive: increase the representation of women on company boards, ideally to 50:50.

As opposed to the standard prescription of ensuring equal pay to women, van Vugt and Ahuja have a counter-intuitive suggestion: stop paying leaders so much money.

“It is also pertinent to rethink those astronomical pay packages; not only do sky-high salaries perpetuate gross inequality in companies and foster ill-will on the shop floor, they attract mainly men. Since rewards and privileges signal status, which increases a man’s sexual allure, men are drawn to well paid positions like bees to a honeypot. And many of these men, who regard the post as a way to further their own needs rather than those of the company or group, will be anything but a sweet deal for the company, especially if they turn out to be Dark Triad leaders.” (p. 207).

Difficult to implement? Perhaps.

Not only do firms have to compete with market rates, the authors note that followers also want their leaders to be compensated well- it’s a sign of their company’s strength. However, one must appreciate that despite growing income inequality, we are primarily an egalitarian primate. Van Vugt and Ahuja contend that CEO compensation packages are inherently unsustainable and require correction.

“Our take on over-inflated CEO rewards? Someone has to blink first.” (p. 208).

This post was originally written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business. To buy a copy of Naturally Selected, click here.

– Ahuja, A. (2010) Women in the boardroom help companies succeed, The Times. Available here
– Bose, S., Ladley, D., & Li, X. (2016). The Role of Hormones in Financial Markets. Available at SSRN 2743087.
– Buss, D. M. (2008). The Evolution of Desire-Revised Edition. Basic Books
– Dunbar, R. (2010). How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s number and other evolutionary quirks. Faber & Faber.
– The Economist (2014) The look of a leader: Getting to the top is as much to do with how you look as what you achieve. Available here
– Fairchild, C. (2015) Why so few women are CEOs (in 5 charts), Fortune Magazine.
Available here
– Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science17(12), 1068-1074
– Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books
– Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–not Just Your” good” Self–drives Success and Fulfillment. Penguin
– Kenrick, D. (2017) Why Hilary Clinton Won the Popular Vote, Psychology Today. Available here
– Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes. Penguin UK
– Robertson, I. (2012). The Winner Effect: How power affects your brain. A&C Black
– Sun, L. (2016) When Democracy Meets the Ghost of Evolution: Why Short Presidents Have Vanished, This View of Life Magazine. Available here
– UK Government (2011) Women on Boards: Lord Davies Report. Available here
– Van Vugt, M., & Grabo, A. E. (2015). The many faces of leadership an evolutionary-psychology approach. Current Directions in Psychological Science24(6), 484-489.
– Van Vugt, M. & Spisak, B.R. (2008). Sex differences in the emergence of leadership during competitions within and between groups. Psychological Science, 19, 854-858.
– Von Rueden, C. (2016) The Conversation About Trump Should Consider the Evolution of Men’s Political Psychology, This View of Life Magazine. Available here.


Join the discussion


  1. Bernd Ehlert says:

    Concerning “The Savannah Hypothesis” “to truly understand the human instinct to lead and the accompanying instinct to follow” I would like to invite you to take a different perspective. This perspective is a synthesis of the theories of Edward O. Wilson and Konrad Lorenz.

    In his book “The Social Conquest of Earth” (2013) Wilson says the following about the instincts: “We are an evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct. This is the reason we are mindlessly dismantling the biosphere and, with it, our own prospects for permanent existence.” (E-Book, Chapter: The Two Paths to Conquest).
    And he also says: “Why call the evolution of human societies into civilization cultural as opposed to genetic? There exist multiple lines of evidence to support this conclusion. Not least is the fact that infants of hunter-gatherer societies raised by adoptive families in technologically advanced societies mature as capable members of the latter—even though the ancestral lines of the child have been separated from those of its adoptive parents by as long as 45,000 years—in, for example, Australian aboriginal children raised by white families.” (Chapter: The Sprint to Civilization).

    What ist the relationship between our instincts for our culture and civilization?

    Konrad Lorenz says in his book “Behind the Mirror”:
    “during the immense periods of earth history, during which life worked its way upward from creatures far more primitive than present-day bacteria to prehuman primates, it was the chain molecules of the genomes that were charged with the function of gathering, conserving and increasing knowledge. Then, suddenly, towards the end of the tertiary age, a totally different organic system makes its appearance, undertaking to achieve the same purpose more quickly and more efficiently.
    If one were to attempt to define Life, one would surely have to include in the definition the function of acquiring and storing information, together with the structural mechanisms of the genome which are performing these tasks. But such a definition would not include the particular characteristics and functions of man. What would be lacking is what constitutes the life of the human mind – and this, one can say without exaggeration, is a new kind of life” (Lorenz, Konrad, Behind the Mirror, 1977, p. 171f).

    What says this synthesis to the question of leadership? “We are an evolutionary chimera” or in the theory of Lorenz there are “strata of existence”. On the top there is our strata of mind and culture which is governed by reason and a neuronal system (of our language). But there are always the influences of the underlying strata, the genetic system with its instincts and emotions.
    Why could “the great leader” Hitler seduce a civilized people within a very short time? Because he appealed to the instincts and they are working on emotions that trigger a very familiar enthusiasm. Yes, this is the old right way, that the people deeply recognize in their feeling.
    But then the nature and evolution shows again in a great clarity why these special instincts no longer fit.

  2. Rory Short says:

    I am a person who inwardly experiences a mystery greater than myself. I belong to a group of people, Quakers, who have consciously chosen to enable this inner experience in our members, the more continuously the better. From this experience I have concluded that this inner experience arises from an all pervasive consciousness [APC] permeating the Universe. The APC drives the evolution of every aspect of the universe including the evolution of ourselves. The beauty of being conscious is that we can consciously interact with the APC, if we choose to so. For this to happen automatically would be a negation of consciousness so it cannot happen. When, as an individual conciousness, we choose this interaction then the evolution of our consciousness is speeded up through our conscious relationship with the APC. Evidence of this happening to human beings is to be found in the emergence of spiritual leaders, two obvious examples being the Buddha and Jesus but there are countless other examples. Quakers as a group are recognised historically as sitting on the leading edge of social evolution and this springs from individuals within the group following, what we call ‘The Leadings of the Light’,and being supported in this by their fellow Quakers. Quaker organisations are typically hierarchical in nature but with this distinction, the social power of the group remains with the group as a whole and is never, ever, transferred up the hierarchy. Any leader, whether appointed by the group or not, is always at the service of the group’s understanding of the leadings of the Light and would be dismissed from the leadership role should they cease being a servant of the group and its insights. Hopefully in this way we overcome the inherited leadership biases discussed in this article.

  3. Leonardo says:

    True Leadership Programs are completely different from these : link to #universityforlife