Compared to countless other animal leaders, human heads of state are not so powerful, finds a new survey of leadership throughout the animal kingdom.
In many cases, animal leaders have the full support of their charges and rise to the top based on experience.
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The goal of the study, published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, was to help determine what makes an effective, true leader.
"While previous work has typically started with the premise that leadership is somehow intrinsically different or more complex in humans than in other mammals, we started without a perceived notion about whether this should be the case," Jennifer Smith of Mills College said in a press release.
She added, "By approaching this problem with an open mind and by developing comparable measures to compare vastly different societies, we revealed more similarities than previously appreciated between leadership in humans and non-humans."
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It has long been known that chimpanzees travel together, capuchins cooperate in fights, spotted hyenas cooperate in hunting, and more, but the common ways that leaders in such groups promote those collective actions has remained a mystery.
To consider the issue, Smith and scientists from a several different fields gathered at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis. There, they reviewed the evidence for leadership in four areas: movement, food acquisition, within-group conflict mediation, and between-group interactions.
The researchers then categorized patterns of leadership, taking note of things like how the leader arose to power, what the payoff is to the leader, and the loyalty of the followers.
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While many humans tend to downplay the importance of experience, suggesting that it can even hinder innovative leadership, experience is what matters the most across the board among all other mammals, with a few exceptions.
Mills shared that leadership is inherited rather than gained among both spotted hyenas and the Nootka, a native Canadian tribe on the northwest coast of North America. It is interesting to consider that royalty have more in common with spotted hyenas, in terms of leadership, than they do with most other mammals.
Among the most impressive animal leaders are elephants, whose head matriarch is beloved, revered and hardly ever challenged by others under her charge. When she may get a bit slow and forgetful, as old age sets in, the next senior, experienced female gradually transitions to the top spot.
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Male lion leaders also deserve mention. While the leadership of the alpha male is constantly under threat, those under him fully respect the protection and security that he provides.
Such qualities are important to humans too, with the similarities among mammal leaders probably reflecting shared thought process mechanisms governing dominance and subordination, alliance formation and decision making.
The differences may be explained, in part, by what Smith said is the human tendency to take on more specialized roles within society.
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She explained, "Even in the least complex human societies, the scale of collective action is greater and presumably more critical for survival and reproduction than in most other mammalian societies."
The researchers still hope to better pinpoint what traits are key to mammal leaders.
Smith said, "As ambitious as our task was, we have only just scraped the surface in characterizing leadership across mammalian societies and some of the most exciting aspects of the project are still yet to come."