The evolutionary origins of leadership styles

There is hardly a professional development seminar nowadays in which you won’t come across leadership styles in one way or another. Leadership is not something that is merely associated with politics but permeates all areas of our lives, ranging from school and work to spiritual guidance and parenting.

In its most simplified version leadership styles are reduced to one-dimension that could simply be labeled “loose” vs “tight” (cf. Gelfand 2011) in culture studies, or liberal vs conservative in politics (cf. Tuschman 2013 )

As someone who is very democratic and who has a very laissez-faire parenting style, I have always been wary of authoritarian leadership and wondering about its evolutionary origins.

The answer is surprisingly simple: for the most part of history, our ancestors were egalitarian hunter-gatherers with no or democratic leadership, whereas the first agricultural societies were strongly hierarchically structured and stratified. So, I am simply making the outrageous claim that some of us have more “hunter-gatherer” and some more “farmer” genes. Of course, leadership style is, like most behavior, heavily influenced by culture. However, some things are simply “instinct”: having attended a highly authoritarian catholic boarding school hasn’t made my leadership style any more authoritarian than if I had attended a more liberal school. In practice, most people will tend towards the center as most viable option, as being too liberal is usually considered a lack of leadership quality and so is being too authoritarian.

Somebody’s leadership style should be at least partially predictable from their genetic make-up. The closest thing we have got to verify this claim is personality, which is typically around .5 heritable. Even though Myers-Briggs has got a bad reputation nowadays, I find it a useful model, precisely because it doesn’t hide patterns behind averages. Ralph Lewis has classified leadership styles according to two MBTI dimensions:

From these tendencies we can see these patterns:

I have argued before that the MBTI traits reflect the following evolutionary development in our species:

Collective food production lead to hierarchical organization in early herders and particularly farmers. Countries with a history of irrigation tend to be particularly tight/authoritarian. The P/J dimension in MBTI most likely reflects the division between nomadism and sedentism. SJ (farmer) types are particularly good at managing routine tasks. Early farmers most likely evolved high conscientiousness and the ability for routine work due to the cyclical nature of their work, including a daily and an annual routine. Hunter-gatherer work is much more punctuated and hunter-gatherer types typically feel like a fish out of water in routine 9–5 jobs.

Hunter-gatherers have no fixed leadership. It is therefore not surprising that NF types have no central leader at all and NT types change their leaders according to competence (task force). This is also the case in hunter-gatherer societies. Leadership can only be temporary and must be based on competence. A temporary task-force style with no fixed hierarchy is therefore in essence an egalitarian “hunter” leadership style.

While farmer types are typically output-productivity oriented, hunter-gatherer types are more development-oriented, i.e. they try to improve things like workflow and optimize resources. NF types also emphasize personal development a lot.

As an NF type, I am all for more women in leadership positions. There is often too much competition within corporations and more EQ infusion would definitely do no harm. A commissioned by Google found out that the number-one success factor in its teams was trust. F types contribute considerably to trust, whereas a more competitive environment often decreases trust.

Originally published at on March 15, 2021.