Written by Richie Cooper

There are many articles written about leadership discussing matters such as 10 characteristics to be an effective leader to 5 steps to leadership. Leadership today is often linked back to psychology and authority; in this article I’ll discuss the links back to biology and our ancestry to better understand leadership today and why our actions and behaviours are so important. I took the decision to study cultural anthropology as my passion for lean saw the respect for people pillar being neglected due to a lack of understanding and visual benefits, often at the expense of the companies.

This pillar of lean could be the single most effective transformation tool in any cultural transformation. Yet many people don’t see the importance of culture and development. After all, it is much easier to choose an improvement philosophy, which has no people involvement. These are destined to be short term and very limited as the removal of people element removes the ability for it to grow and become part of the culture instead of part of the counter culture.

The cost of all leadership is self interest, this is the first thing you will learn from any good leadership book and has been evident since early man started to live and work together for survival. The leader of the tribe would be given all the perks such as choice of meat and mate. This is because the rest of the tribe knew when danger came the leaders of the tribe would rush towards the danger and put themselves at greater risk.

This is why we do not mind our superiors being paid more than we are. Should modern dangers arise in the form of competition, economics or new technology they will face the danger head on for the good of the workforce.

We are naturally hierarchical animals, without hierarchy man would not survive, we are constantly assessing and judging each other who’s the alpha. Alpha status is relative to the situation we are in. This is why we have insecurities when we are out of our comfort zone. A weightlifter would not be an alpha in a ballet or singing class.

Leadership is a choice and in our modern day and age many of the people who like to call themselves leaders are not leaders at all. Often they are authority figures and we have to do what they say because they have authority over us. If we do not feel safe working inside the organisation, they force us to spend our time and our energy to protect ourselves, instead of protecting us like they should be doing.

The human body works the exact same way as any organisation works; we have internal incentive systems, which work hard to get us to repeat behaviours that are in our interests. If you do what I want you to do, I will reward you. This is the way most organisations operate today. This is also why we like metrics so much to show our progress against a goal. This comes from how the brains chemistry has evolved over thousands of years.

The brain works with five main chemicals, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and cortisol. When these chemicals are out of balance relationships breakdown, we get addicted to performance at any expense and we use our energy to protect ourselves from each other to the detriment of the organisation. Historically this is not a good system for the survival of the organisation. Most companies have an inner circle a protected few that whatever they do they are protected. This enables them to act outside the behavioural systems of the rest of the organisation. The tribe is not stupid they see this and go into self preservation mode.

We will always repeat behaviours which makes us feel good, when these chemicals are in balance we work together to win and thrive due to our social nature and ability to cooperate. Trust is a resultant feeling and cannot be forced just telling two people to trust each other does not work, it takes time to build the same as relationships with a partner.

Dopamine this is the goal drug and why we love metrics so much as they indicate progress towards a goal, this is why they put mile markers up in a marathon to keep us going as we want that dopamine rush at the end that feeling of accomplishment every milestone we see makes us want it more and more, this I what enabled us in Palaeolithic times to hunt creatures much faster than us as we would chase it for days and tire out any animal on the planet.

This is also why we call them vision statements you must be able to see the goal we are trying to achieve. So when managers or authorities say things like “we want more” or you read a mission statement that says “To be the Biggest” “To be the most respected” “To be the best” it’s meaningless and amorphous as we cannot picture it in our minds therefore it is not real to us and does not trigger the shot of dopamine. Visualisation creates action and it is only action which can accomplish our goals. Sharing a vision can be extremely powerful for the tribe.

Dopamine is a highly addictive drug, other things that release dopamine are such things as gambling, alcohol, social media and mobile phones. Dopamine addicts like to accomplish their own goals at the expense of the tribe. Dopamine is highly addictive and the reason studies have shown senior managers with an organisation have more psychotic tendencies. It is the combination of self interest and dopamine which is most detrimental to businesses.

If the environment is safe the natural inclination of the human being is to serve and to sacrifice if the environment is wrong the natural inclination is to protect oneself even at the expense of others. Saying I love my job has nothing to do with actual work it’s whom we work with that creates the environment.

The job of leadership is to make that environment safe, when your child comes home from school with a bad school report we would not chose to fire them and we would not say money is tight it’s either you or the Audi have to go and unfortunately it’s you. So why in business would we choose to treat people so differently.

There are organisations which have committed to not firing people for performance reasons and this expands the circle of safety from the inner circle to the farthest reaches of the organisation and shows the organisations commitment to it’s people, training and development.