Leadership Evolution, Revolution and Devolution

Recorded at Lean Agile Manchester on 19th July 2017
Louise Elliott. What does human evolution teach us about how we should lead teams in the 21st century? This talk takes a journey covering the last 2.5 million years in order to understand the evolutionary influences which still affect us today. It asks questions such as ‘Why are 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs so tall?’ and ‘Can you tell a person’s job just by looking at their face?’. It also delves into the different strategies which chimpanzees use to become the alpha male and considers whether any of them are useful in the human world.


Leadership. This isn’t specifically agile but what I wanted to do is just take some time to think about leadership. How it got to where it is today, why it’s gotten there, and what options we have around things. Of course, I want to start by thinking about chimpanzees because what else would we think about. Chimpanzees really have three main strategies that they use to become alpha male. The first one of those is dominance. This is the one that you’ll see most often. This is just where the biggest, strongest chimp fights for dominance and shows that, being the most dominant male, he should become alpha male and everything that goes along with that. In Tanzania in 2011, they were observing a certain chimp area and there was a chimp called [Penu 00:01:02] who was really quite strong.

He was very definitely the alpha male of his group. He would bully all the other males. Even the males who were in his immediate cohort, his lieutenants, he would beat on them. He would hurt them to just show that he was still king of the roost. He was still where he should be. Now, Penu did this once too often. He went to a point where he was really brutally attacking one of his lieutenants. What actually happened was all of the other lieutenants ganged together and beat him to death, and he died. It’s a very happy tale. That was the end of him as alpha male but this is still the most common approach used in the chimpanzee communities that we’ve observed. The second of the three strategies is actually intelligence. We have Mike. Also in Tanzania but this was in 1964 that this was observed.

What he did, there were a group of people who were living nearby the champs, because obviously that’s how the observations were happening. There was a research station. He snuck into that research station, and he stole two empty kerosene bottles. He was quite a small chimp. He wasn’t a strong one. There was no way he was going to become alpha male for the more traditional route of dominance. What he did was he started to run at the other alpha males hitting these on the floor making also to strange noises, waving them at them. They didn’t know it was. They didn’t know what these things were. They didn’t know what they could do and they were scared of it. They all submitted to him as alpha male. He actually came up, over the years, with a number of different approaches still using these kerosene bottles.

They were never taken back off him again. All sorts of different ways of keeping them scared. It was still a scare tactics, but it’s a really good example of where people can actually use their intelligence to make up for the fact that they don’t have maybe the physical brawn that’s needed. The third strategy is all about political alliances. One of the good examples of this is [Lubutu 00:03:24] who actually lives a zoo in Australia. Around 10 years ago, he was eight, and the older male in the zoo died. He was the only male in the troop at that point. He became alpha male almost by default. He wasn’t particularly big and strong. What he did was he really built alliances. He would groom the females, which is very unusual behaviour for an alpha male. He would play with the young of the troop, which is also very unusual.

He would share his food with him. They all really liked him. Then, in later years, when other chimpanzees came along who were male, were stronger, who wanted to fight for dominance, they were actually beaten down by the females. There was one particular example where 17 females attacked the male who is trying to actually take control from him. Lubutu is still, 10 years on, the alpha male of that particular group. There is also, although we talk a lot about leadership and about, and in this case, alpha males becoming alpha male, we get the impression that everybody wants to do that. That’s not actually true. Even in the chimpanzee world, we have [Jomio 00:04:49] who actually was the biggest, the strongest by far in his troop but just wasn’t that bothered.

He was the lowest on the pecking order. He got the food last. He was absolutely the lowest. It wasn’t that he chose not to be there. It just wasn’t in his nature that he wanted to be the alpha male. We have these very three different ways of these guys becoming alpha male. Which one works the best? Any thoughts?

Yeah. What we actually find is average of two years for the temple and. Dominance, you tend to be there for about two years. The bottom one, 10 years on average with that approach. I couldn’t find any numbers for the intelligence one, which is really annoying, but you can see a whole different thing. Also, the best actual approach is a combination of all of these. The ones in charge for the longest of the ones that change how they’re behaving depending on the nature of the chimpanzees that they are interacting with at that point and depending on the stage that they are at in their leadership. Perhaps they start with a dominance and then they go into a political alliance or perhaps they are dominant with some males that need that in order for them to keep the alpha male over them and not with others who actually need something a little different.

It’s also interesting to think about the family groups of chimpanzees. They have a close family group of around seven, and they live in a bigger group of around 50. This is pretty standard numbers across no matter where we’ve observed chimpanzees. Actually, there’s similar studies that say, in humans, we also have a close group of seven that we tend to have 150 people that we interact with on a regular basis. I’m sure that that will be different in the day and age of social media because it feels like I interact with that many people every day, and different people every day. It’ll be interesting to see what studies say coming out of that but that’s what the study say. Which is also interesting, me, when you think about the [scrum 00:07:27] numbers, the seven plus or minus two.

I don’t know where that came from. I don’t know. I wonder whether it came from similar studies that are actually looking at what is a natural grouping for humans. We also have an example where this type of thinking was used in a work environment. Craig Scroggie, who was MD for Symantec in the Pacific, he took over and they actually had a structure very like what’s shown on there. They had one person reporting to one person and then they had one person who actually reported to two people. They didn’t have any teams. It was all that individual thing. Who knows what a net promoter score is? Who wants to explain it? You want to explain it.

How many of your customers would promote you and also how many wouldn’t. So looks at both ends of that. It tends to go from a minus 100 to a plus 100. In Symantec, they use a net promoter school to measure engagement of their employees also. They started off at minus 38 and the only change that he made was to put them in teams of around seven people, and to change obviously the reporting structure off the back of that. At that point, he had made no other changes to the way in which they worked. They went from minus 38 to plus 71.5, which is quite amazing. The organisation as a whole is at plus five. They went from incredibly last in the organisation to way over. I’m going to take you back to half million years, now. Humans are living on the savanna perhaps.

They are obviously in hunter gatherer type groups. When you look at similar hunter gatherer type groups nowadays, because obviously we don’t know what leadership was like then. There’s no way for us to tell. But we can do is look at some of our current hunter gatherer groups and how they behave. There are number of studies but I looked at one’s particularly around the ǃKung San in the Kalahari desert and also the Amazonian [Yomoto 00:10:04]. What they do, they both have a situation where their leadership is fluid. They choose their leader depending on what they’re doing at that point in time. If they’re going to go out hunting, they choose a leader who they think will get them the best times result. If they’re going out to gathering medicinal herbs, they will choose the leader they think will give them the best results within that.

There will be different attributes for those different people and the leadership varies over time depending on the task and there is no one overall leader. The interesting thing here is the power has to choose is the leader is with the followers. The power is not what the leader. The leader doesn’t have the power. If the followers didn’t like how a leader was behaving, they wouldn’t choose him as the leader the next time they go to do something like that. There’s also lots of, what they call, correcting mechanisms around bringing the leader back to how they want them to behave. Things like gossip and just refusing to do what they say or leaving the group completely or through and including murder. It can be quite extreme, so lead people nicely.

Then, if we look at the type of style that this is, I would say this is more of an intelligence led style. If we look, this is our 2 and a half million users, this here is the last 13,000 years. It’s .5%, roughly, the whole of that time. In those last 13,000 years is when we’ve had agriculture. Agriculture changed the game. We were certainly in a situation where we could feed a lot more people, we had a lot more resources. We were in a whole different world. That led to the need for somebody to actually distribute all this food, all of this, I guess, natural wealth, which people had. We are in a time of growth. We’ve got somebody who becomes more of a permanent leader. Instead of that fluid leadership piece. This is when we start to get warlords, kings, that sort of thing.

For a warlord or a king to properly rule, because the population is growing hugely, they obviously need people who they trust and who can go off and control certain areas and he knows they’re going to come back and tell him what’s going on. Also, he can trust them to go off and manage the area. He is closely tenant. They, themselves, because the environment is so complex and so big, need themselves to have a trusted team. And so on. Until we get to this kind of structure. A lot of what we have today and organisations comes from this type of time where that’s the type of structure that came into place to handle the plenty. It also means we ended up with an elite. We ended up with people that had a lot more of the plenty than other people did.

A lot of things that we see in today’s, certainly, our society. This is a dominance model. How of these people at the top keep getting more than the people at the bottom? Because they’re dominating. The setting systems up which allow them to dominate. Systems of law, systems of feudal approach to things. All of which keep those people who have plenty still having plenty. Of the last 13,000 years, this little strip down the side is the last 250 years. As the time since the Industrial Revolution. Nearly all of our management theory that we have comes from this period in time. It’s mostly looking back, at most, the last 250 years. It’s, out of that 13,000 year period wherever culture was super important. It’s led us to almost put that into most organisations, now.

The whole Tailorism type approach to management, the whole scientific management movement, and we have the structure built in, now, to nearly every organisation. Even when a smaller more agile organisation that works in a really different way grows, you start to see these things happening. Again, dominance. One principle, called the savanna principle, basically says our evolution has impacted us in ways that are not necessarily helpful today. The savanna principle will say things like the fact that I really love sweet, fatty, salty food used to be something that would mean that I would live longer and more healthly and now is just something which means I have to be on a diet all the time. It’s that type of thing where evolutionarily, we are in a place where what we have is not necessarily helpful but it’s still there.

I would argue that we still have a number of those things around how we choose our leaders, all of that type of thing. This, this is one screenshot from an experiment that was done. If you’re going to sail from Troy to Ithaca, which of these two would you like is your captain? Put your hands up if you want the guy on the left, they are, as your captain. Who wants the guy on the right? That’s pretty evenly split. That’s quite an unusual group. When they did this experiment, they did this with lots of different people and they asked lots of different questions of this sort. This particular one, this guy here, was chosen far more often. 71% of people chose this guy. These are actually two politicians from the US. He’s the one who won the election.

They did that a lot. That’s 70%, over 70% of the time, chose the one who actually ended up winning that electoral contest. This was almost 3000 people took part in this study and almost 700 of those were children. They got it right more often … By getting it right, I mean predicted the winner of the contest, more often the adults did. The adults were 60 odd percent, and the children higher. Something, just by looking at these people, but we are making judgments about their competence, about their honesty, about their … Just from the looks of their face. Because they, like you, had nothing more than these two pictures to go on. It’s not the only scenario we have that. We have a number of studies looking at things. One study undertaken by Princeton University look that if we show you two faces of politicians for only 100 milliseconds, can you choose the right answer.

The answer was still 70% of people were able to choose the person who won with only 100 milliseconds looking at that picture. Something really innate, here. It’s not a big analysis thing going on. There’s something really innate about how people look at what we do and how we judge them. The University of California looked into this and they said that 17% of the vote in any election comes from the looks the most competent. This is quite shocking to me. There’s something innately in the way in which we evolved which is leading, and this is across many different countries, many different approaches. There’s just something in there that we’re looking at that and judging people on that. I have another one for you. Another study. Click on the photo of the military general.

Which one do you think the military generally is? You think that’s the one on the left? Who thinks it’s the one on the right? Most of you think it’s the one on the right. Quite unsatisfyingly, I don’t know what the answer is. I think it’s the one on the right, as well, so I’m declaring that the be the right answer. This is a study where they rented in the UK but the faces were from people from the US. They were trying to remove the chance that people knew these people. It was around 400 people. They had military generals, CEOs, American football coaches, and state governors. They basically had exactly this kind of thing. You had to just go through and just click on who did was job. Over 70%, again, got the jobs right, just by looking at the faces.

They don’t even have hair on this one. Just by looking at their faces, they were able to tell which of those jobs they did. Not 100% of the time that statistically significant amount of the time. If we look and just consider this a bit further, 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs in the US are over six foot two tall. 3.9% of the population are. There is a judgement , there are many studies that show that taller people get bigger pay rises and get more social esteem. Many, many studies. There’s also studies which have shown that people can pick high-ranking CEOs from lower ranking CEOs. It’s a really weird scenario. They think that’s on the squareness of the jaw line. They think that’s what’s actually driving that. Which, they think, may be driven in the womb from the level of testosterone.

There might be a behavioural thing that this is coming from or a view of how someone looks gives us a judgement of a behavioural thing. This isn’t a just men, either. There’s a study of female CEOs which shows that, actually, when people rated their competence purely on looking at the faces, they rated their competence, that was actually it correlated with the results of the organisations that those women ran. This is more, in this scenario, then even just how we are judging people but actually it seemed to correlate in and through to the actual results of the organisation, which is more worrying in my view. This can all go far too far. This company called Faception, they are an organisation based in Tel Aviv. They are a small startup type company.

They claim that they can, through their CCTV technology and analysis, they can tell who’s a terrorist, who is a paedophile, all sorts of other things. On these pictures, here, and tell me which is the professional poker player according to Faception?

Varying, aren’t we? That’s number one according to them. We have two left. One is a bingo player and the other one is an academic researcher. Of these two here, which is the bingo player?

All the women are shouting out that the man is the bingo player. Any of the men want to comment? Which one of these two is the bingo player?

It’s actually the man, that’s why I put it up. Otherwise, obviously we would have ignored that completely. This is where this stuff starts to get, for one, up to that point, I’m just slightly concerned that I’m making judgments without knowing that I’m making judgments. Actually, knowing that I have a tendency to do that lets me stand back and ask am I doing it, which is power in and of itself. This is a whole ‘nother level of worrisome. This is almost a judgement of other people and the categorization of people through technology. I did check these guys are still in business. I checked today. I’m not sure their customers are.

So the Victorians had I can’t what they call it was the bumps on the head, didn’t they?

Phrenology, that was it.

It is, although, I guess they had to leap at you and touch your head to understand some of that. Bobbing back to the two faces peace, has anyone seen the computer programme inventor versus serial killer on the Internet? It’s the same thing.

Obviously. There is actually a trick one in there were one is both, which is kind of fun. I’ve ruined it for you now. Do go off, if you’ve not seen it, and have a look. You will be quite surprised how many you can work out which one is the computer programmer, inventor of a computer programming language versus a serial killer. Although, to be honest, I think all the serial killers were mainly mugshots, so it wasn’t that surprising to me. I think that leadership is really interesting and we often mix leadership up with management and we use the terms interchangeably. Within the agile community, obviously, that’s a little different. Still, that can happen when we’re talking about things. I wanted to share a story with you about when I very first became a team leader, which was a really, really long time ago just because I’m really old. I’ve been a developer for a long time.

I’ve actually worked in that team for a long time as a developer. They said, ‘Right, can you be the team leader as well as working in the team?’ This didn’t even come with a pay rise or anything. Of course, I said I’d do it because it’s a new challenge and I like new challenges. Suddenly the world worked differently. There were only three of us in this team. It wasn’t even a big team. One of the guys, absolutely we would talk about the stuff that needed doing, he’d go off and do it, it work the same way as it ever had when we had been working before. The other guy just stopped delivering anything. Nothing would ever get delivered. If I went to him and went, ‘Well, where is this thing,’ he would go … I literally would almost have to bully him into delivering anything.

I spent about six months trying to work out what on earth was wrong with him. Why had he suddenly stopped delivering, what was wrong with him? Until I realised, actually, the question was what was wrong with me. I was making the assumption that I think a lot of new managers make, which is that everybody is throwing their beer bottles on the floor. Everybody is motivated by the same things that motivate me. That’s so not true. This is my first realisation of that. Up to that point, I thought that everyone would like this stuff because it’s fun and I find it fun, so they must find it fun. What I actually did, I asked him to create a little tool. This is really long time ago, I told you that. We didn’t have a bug tracking system because that costs money. We needed a way of uniquely generating a number.

It needed to not be unique only for our team to be unique for other teams as well. I asked him to just write the tool it would do that. He did that and he delivered it. If I had done that, it would’ve been a really boring command line tool that just gave you a number. Type a thing and it just gives you a number. He came up with Mabel. You type this thing and a picture of Mabel would come up. This old lady, she was about 80 years old, I think. That’s how I saw her, anyway. You had to be really polite to Mabel. If you didn’t use lots of polite words and interact … It was command line stuff but if you weren’t … She would be in a bit of a huff if you didn’t say please and you didn’t … If you were rude to her, she wouldn’t even respond for ages. There was a different level of stuff.

Mabel became the fourth member of our team. We would stand at the board designing stuff and we would say ‘What would Mabel do?’ She really became a character in our team. What he did was really add to our team dynamics, to our culture, to who we were. He thoroughly enjoyed doing that. He did that off his own bat without me having to beat him into doing it. I stood back and realised if I had done that, it would’ve been really boring. He did that and he made such a difference. I chatted to him about it and it became clear to me that he really enjoyed doing the silly little things. The little things that were not about the overall delivery. Actually, when I gave him all of those little things to do, he was very happy to also do the delivery. He just wanted those other things to do.

That was one of my first lessons in actually motivating people and understanding that not everyone’s like me. I think if we went back to the two and a half million years ago peace where the followers chose the leaders. Where the leaders were chosen for what they could bring to the situation and actually they were serving the followers and not the other way around, I think that that is our more natural human state. All of this hierarchical approach actually has been introduced through the systems that we’ve been through going through agriculture, all of that surplus, then it being embedded in through the cultural situation that we’re enjoying, the Industrial Revolution just embedded that further. We are sitting in the world and in a corporate world where this is normal.

I would argue that we should turn it back ’round. There are number of movements that are looking at doing that. You can look at the servant leadership piece, which is very much around that type of area. Also a lot of those things that we do and agile really have this underneath it. We still have a number of things where leaders are imposed on teams. The scrum master is defined by somebody in a higher level of management or your line manager is defined and imposed. Even within the agile world, we can be in a situation where it’s not really where naturally we would be as a species. In the Towers Watson global workforce survey, they found that there are five things which workers want from their line managers. The immediate managers above them.

They want to be treated with respect. I think that’s probably reasonably easy for people to agree with. They want their manager to clearly communicate what the goals are, what’s needed, what they’re wanting from their team. They want someone who is open and honest, who helps to remove impediments … The survey didn’t say the word impediments, just thought I’d throw that in. Somebody who actively manages poor performance. That’s actually quite an interesting one. If there is someone in the team just isn’t performing, and team and. Pressure isn’t happening and nothings happening with that, they want people who actually will address that and do something about that. Quite interestingly, in handling different conversations at work, which is a study which came out, they look at actually the things that managers find hardest to do. The top one was firing people and the second one was managing poor performance.

Because of that, most managers do not do that one. They do not manage the poor performance in the way they should. They either stand back and say, ‘Well, it’s a team, it’s agile, they should sort that out between them.’ Even when it doesn’t get sorted out still stay stood back, or they just let the situation continue because those conversations are hard. Sitting down with someone and saying, ‘What you’re giving me is not what I most value,’ that’s hard conversation to be had and a lot of managers will avoid doing it. What other followers telling us they want from high-level managers, high up in the organisation? They still want respect. They want respect across the employees as a whole, not just for themselves. They want to be inspired to give their best every day in the organisation.

They also want somebody who it looks to them like they are giving, making rational decisions for the long term and not for the short-term. Again, the communication. They want a vision. They want that compelling vision. They also want somebody who’s flexible in their approach. This, to me, is really important. This survey. This was 2014 but they do, it’s a massive survey across, I think, 55 different countries. It’s about roughly 80,000 people take part in the survey. People want to know what it is that the people who are being managed want from the people are managing them, it’s a really powerful study. It goes and other things as well. There are a number of phrases, when I was looking up leadership and approach to leadership, there are a lot of these sorts of things that come from that dominance world.

‘Soldiers should fear their officers more than the enemy.’ ‘At home, as abroad, I reign only through the fear I inspire.’ ‘It’s dangerous for a soldier to desert the Red Army than to serve in combat.’ I would argue that a lot of what we do and the hierarchical organisations is around that fear. It’s around that dominance. It’s around that they won’t say that this is the wrong thing to do because I’m the one that said this should be done and I’m in this position. Drucker obviously has a different view on a number of these things. I thought I’d balance, at least, with something from that side. It’s really true that that position, being in a managerial position, shouldn’t be a power thing. It shouldn’t be a blank thing. It shouldn’t be something …

I’ve worked in a hierarchical organisation and I can think of someone right now is in his role and enjoys his role because he gets to have the power. He gets to make the decision. He uses his voice of authority in meetings where he’s the highest ranking person in there in order to get his decisions done. I’m actually quite awkward. I pretend I don’t understand the voice of authority. I like playing that game and just carry-on anyway. This particular guy has no come back on that so that’s a fun one to play in that scenario. Can anyone tell me who this is? Terry Kelly. Terry Kelly is the unCEO of Gore, which is the company that makes Gore-Tex. She’s the unCEO because she didn’t apply for the job. What they did was they went out across the company when the previous CEO left and they said, ‘Do you want to become CEO?’

Everyone just voted. Nobody put anyone’s names forward. Everyone just sent in the names of the people they wanted to be CEO and Terry got the job. She didn’t apply for the job, she didn’t even particularly want the job but she took the job. That’s a really good example at corporate scale of an organisation that is doing incredibly well, and working really well, with a culture that trusts its employees enough to go out and say, ‘Who do you want to leave you at a high level,’ and I think that’s really, really powerful. I did a little experiment. It was this big compared to that. We, I don’t know, six months or so maybe a year ago added some team leads into the department that I was in. We went out to people and said, ‘What team do you want to be in? Which team lead the want to report to?’

This isn’t the team that runs all the work but this is just the line management piece. ‘Who do you want to report in to?’ I told my manager at the time that we were going to go do this and her response was, ‘It’s going to be carnage.’ Which was a little worrying that I was, ‘We’ll give it a go. See what happens. What’s the worst that could happen? Everyone it’s me forever. Everyone chooses the same person and I can’t do it.’ We had some strong opinions. We had some people going, ‘I really want this person.’ Often that was the person they were already reporting in or through to. We had some other people say, ‘I really don’t want that person. Give me anyone but them.’ Most people were like, ‘We’re just happy to be, actually, in any of them,’ they don’t really mind.

We were able to really easily give everybody … To meet everybody’s wishes and that. That’s a really tiny little thing but I think there is a respect piece in there and saying to people, ‘Who suits you as your team lead?’ If you care about the fact you’ve got personal development plan, maybe you really care about that in this particular team lead just doesn’t care about that, maybe you want to be with a different one. Who do you want to be with? That was a really interesting on a teeny, tiny little scale version of that. There was also a study by Harvard Business Review looked at about 55 businesses and leadership styles. When you read the literature, there’s lots of different ways of talking about leadership styles but one of two categories that used are, are you task oriented as a leader.

You’re trying to manage the tasks that people are doing and you’re looking at the work that needs to be done. Or are you relationship oriented where you’re trying to build those relationships between you and everybody else and between everyone else and each other and actually you let that go through. What they actually did, what they found, was like the chimpanzees, the best performing teams, the best-performing areas were ones where the leaders actually change their styles. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the whole forming, storming, norming, performing view of teams. If we apply what this study talked about in relation to that particular, Tuchman’s theory, what it would say is that in the forming stage, the best leaders are task oriented.

They’re letting people know here are the boundaries, here’s what we are here to do, here are the things that need doing, here are maybe roles and responsibilities depending on what the thing is. Whether that’s necessary or not. They’re being very descriptive about what needs to be done, why we are doing it, and where we’re at. Through the storming phase, there still doing some of that but there also trying to do that relationship building, they’re doing the conflict management so that the conflict is good, it’s not being shutdown but the conflict actually leading to resolutions, not just sticking with in that whole conflict arena. Then moving through so as soon as we get through, obviously, to the norming and the performing stages, changing their process but it’s not relationship oriented.

Leaving people in the teams to actually do the task management themselves, to go on with those things. Actually, it’s about those relationships and building those. For me, this is about how people as leaders in organisations today doing what the work demands, and what the people demand for doing that day to day delivery. Being willing to change our natural management style, respecting them enough to step back and change that and actually give them what they need to do their work. That, for me, is really important. Summarising all of that piece, I think, really is this quote, for me. Which is, again, a Drucker quote all about it being we that did it and not I that did it. Really, for me, is that flexible leadership style. It’s the giving people a choice of who’s leading them.

When we have self managing teams, that happens naturally. People will step forward, there’s different stages, different things that are happening. People will step in and out of that leadership role. We see that happening as a natural thing. I also think that if you are a leader, you owe it to the people you work with to be the type of leader that people would choose if they had a choice. Even if they don’t have one. I think that is actually incumbent upon us to be that type of person. The overall summary, for me, is it’s not about you, it’s about them. That’s it. Thank you.

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