Leadership book suffers from power struggle between its two authors


BOOK REVIEW: SELECTED :Why Some People Lead, Others Follow, and Why it Mattersby Anjana Ahuja, Mark van Vugt; Profile Books; £12.99 (€15)

THERE’S A fault line running through Selected, a new book about leadership; it’s there on the cover, and every page thereafter.

It has all the constituent parts to be a compelling study in to why some people lead and others follow, but it fails to do so. This has something to do with the question it sets out to ask – it’s too broad – but more importantly, the book suffers from what appears to have been a power struggle between the two authors, meaning it was less entertaining than it could have been.

On the face of it, they are well qualified and a good match. One, Mark van Vugt, is a professor of psychology. The other, Anjana Ahuja, is a talented science journalist. Some very good, and hugely successful business titles have been written by similar “good cop, dull cop” teams; the scientist and the storyteller.

In the Freakonomicsfranchise, Stephen Levitt’s micro-economic theory is given new life by Stephen Dubner’s knack with a yarn. Last time I looked they seemed to be doing okay, saleswise. Whereas the two Steves conjure counterintuitive conclusions from the flimsiest seeming material, drug dealers and their mums, Sumo wrestlers etc, the science bit which forms the basis of Selectedis a bit obvious.

Van Vugt’s work posits the idea that our brains have not moved on since we lived in caves and so we are ill-equipped to deal with modern corporate life. On the savannah we moved around in small tribes, choosing our leaders on the basis of their ability to hunt and gather. Now we work in large office blocks and the payrolls run to the thousands, but the way we choose our leaders, from politicians to CEOs, has not caught up.

This is, to quote the book’s big idea, the “mismatch hypothesis”: Because of this psychological mismatch, our brains are still wired to seek out leaders who display physical and behavioural traits that our ancestors would have prized on the savannah (which is why we like tall, strong-jawed leaders)”.

Van Vugt is borrowing heavily on “evolutionary leadership theory”, which suggests that the traits of leadership and its flip, followership, still impact on the way we recruit our people and even elect our politicians. There’s plenty of evidence, say the book’s authors, “from fish to bees to humans” that tagging behind a competent leader is a smart way for any species to prosper.

The chapter called “Born to Follow” explains briefly how people behave when a fire alarm goes off: “When people don’t know which exit to use in a theatre, they tend to follow the crowd. In terms of uncertainty, we turn to others who might have the answers”.

This “mimicry of inertia”, says the authors, is thought to have cost lives in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. This point would have been fascinating if developed more fully. Similarly, the example of when we follow the wrong person is one area which in other hands could have been developed further. “Think of those who followed the advice of Bernard Madoff, who perpetrated the biggest private investor fraud in history. His followers included such famous names as the film director Steven Spielberg and the developer Mort Zuckerman. Even for these high-flying types the urge to follow their friends in to what turned out to be a pyramid selling scheme was overwhelming. To prospective investors, he sounded like a man of supreme ability and confidence; it is almost as if he led a financial cult”.

There is a palpable desire running through the pages of Selectedto be an “ideas book” and I couldn’t help thinking, what would Malcolm Gladwell have made of this raw material? In his book Outliers, similar ground is covered – the terrible crash record of Korean pilots owing to a culture of deference between junior and senior pilots.

The big difference is that Gladwell (a journalist) started with the story not the science, ensuring we remember the tale, and take the science on board as we go. Too often in Selected the reverse was true. The scientist- writer relationship is a delicate balance and it’s to the book’s detriment that the scientist won out. What I wanted was to be entertained and informed along the way. What I got was a lecture, and a bit of a dull one at that.