Masters in Leadership

Blog of the Master Programme Leadership

Leadership: Why the Neanderthal matters


From the scientific standpoint Leadership is wide open space. That’s why I really love teaching and working on Leadership with students and young leaders from industry, politics and administration. Leadership covers far more than dealing with the numbers of an enterprise and decision taking. Besides the economic and organizational aspects, it’s about psychology, sociology, language, ethics, organizational behavior and even medicine. Nevertheless, and this might be regarded as the weak point here, science does not offer the one Leadership theory. Dealing with Leadership is like looking into a kaleidoscope with a permanently changing pattern of singular theories, approaches from different backgrounds, more or less established practices and situational factors.

Being born only a few miles away from the Neandertal Valley (without “h”) I have always been extremely interested in human evolution and especially the evolution human societies including the evolution of communication, economic behavior and leadership. Not only in the tradition of Joseph Schumpeter, evolutionary thinking plays a central role in modern economics. Evolutionary economics, entrepreneurship research and modern organizational or leadership theories are strongly influenced by Charles Darwin and his modern followers.

For some years now there has also been a growing academic interest in evolutionary psychology. Especially the American Psychologist David M. Buss had a great impact on the academic development in that field. The core idea of evolutionary psychology is that human behavior has emerged through beneficial adaptation processes increasing the probability of the hunter and gatherer population to survive and to reproduce in specific environments.

Obviously the ability to lead and to follow has been one of these successful adaptations. In their current book “Selected – Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters” the Dutch psychologist Mark van Vugt and his co-author, the science journalist Anjana Ahuja, discuss the question why leadership has evolved over the last ten thousands years, and why there are severe mismatches between modern leadership aspirations and the way our “Neanderthal” (with “h”) brains are wired. They show why leaders lead like our ancestors in the nice valley close to Düsseldorf and people follow their leaders like 5.000 years of cultural development including the enlightenment haven’t taken place – think about wars, stock market bubbles, mafia, or suicide bombings.

This is a video with psychologist Mark van Vugt talking at a RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) event:

It would be beneficial for many organizations, if both, leaders and followers,would turn their clocks some thousands years back to understand what they are really doing and why. Evolutionary Leadership Theory (ELT) is an exciting approach helping us to understand leadership in business, politics and private life. Nevertheless I strongly doubt that ELT offers the long expected redemption for Leadership sciences: It will definitely not offer the one and only overarching Leadership theory.

Our master students discuss evolutionary leadership theories in the module “Evolutionary Systems” which addresses the topic from a systemic, economic, organizational and psychological perspective.


Van Vugt, M./Ahuja, A. (2010); Selected – Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters; London (Profile Books)

Becker, L.(2010); Was wir von Darwin lernen können – Das PMO aus evolutorischer Sicht; in: Sandrino-Arndt, B./Thomas, R. L./Becker, L.. (Hg.); Handbuch Project Management Office – Mit dem PMO zum strategischen Management der Projektlandschaft, Düsseldorf 2010 (Symposion)
Both books are available at Karlshochschule’s library


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