The sunrise of leadership

Leadership is a concept that has been evolving in time. It has been initially considered as a personal quality and this concept lasted for a long time. Scholars progressively understood that leadership is not an individual trait but rather a process. This process is characterized by influence (not just the influence of the leader upon the followers, but rather the interactive influence between the leader and the followers sharing a common goal) and context (when the context changes, also the leadership process changes).

     Apart from this, generally accepted, evolution of the concept of leadership, we have very few written accounts regarding leadership as opposed to the last hundred and fifty years of abundant and ever-increasing information. This poses a problem because the ancient historical narration we have on leaders is the information that the winning part wanted to convey us. Leadership is often associated with success, intended as achievement of the intentions, so it is not a disadvantage that what we know from history mostly comes from the winners, however we have to be conscious that what we learn from history is firstly a point of view probably redacted that deprives us of the point of view of the losers. These points of view are not at all secondary because, as we will see in a dedicated chapter, vulnerability and failure is an extremely important side of leadership, especially in respect of awareness and self-awareness.

     For instance, we know so much about Julius Caesar and his conquests but much less about Spartacus and his conquests (Spartacus was the most famous of slaves, a gladiator that fought in ancient Rome’s Colosseum and eventually led a major slave uprising). How many other slaves’ revolts leaders and losing part leaders we know so little about? On the other hand the British Admiral Horatio Nelson was renowned for writing the accounts of his battles and then have them signed by his subordinates as if they had written the accounts, before sending them to the British Admiralty as well as the newspapers of the time: in such way he could control his own image as an hero. 

     When we look at prehistoric men, we see innumerable finds that tell us a story of leadership. In hunter-gatherer societies and tribal societies this behavior appeared in vital activities such as warfare, forging political alliances, order maintaining within-group, big game hunting, and moving camp. Leaders usually were men rather than women, even though women could influence considerably men in all affairs. Leaders rose and exerted their power over the group based on achievement, the most significant qualities being physical force and ability to impose one’s view. Expertise in any one domain such as managing relations, hunting, medical, bravery, communication and so on could rise the individual to a leadership position. Leadership was merit based, not inherited. 

     Hunter-gatherer societies really had no leaders some say, rather there were shared codes of conduct within small and probably also larger groups. These groups were egalitarian as in no other time of history men have ever been. No one in the group had access to anything different that all the others of the group could have reached as well: there was no particular knowledge, no particular tool, no particular awareness, no particular secret that one could possess and others not know of. Daily life was promiscuous, time was mostly dedicated to food and shelter, all of which were shared or at the least anybody would participate to, and thus could observe, the techniques of anybody else.

     Many years ago I had the opportunity to travel through the Sahara desert in North Africa, a partner of my foundation was running an anthropological research and there was no better occasion for me to know more of that long forgotten area of that desert, than siding their expedition. We travelled for over one month throughout the desert with nothing in view other than the horizon. We reached an area where you could see small rocky hills a few hundred feet high, ten to twenty miles one from the other. I climbed one of these hills and, to my surprise, on top there was a flat sandy terrace, protected all around by stones a couple of feet high. You could stand in the middle of a terrace looking over towards the sandy horizon and feel completely protected, having control of all the surrounding area. The place was full of primitive choppers – a pebble tool with an irregular cutting edge formed through the removal of flakes from one side of a stone – clearly showing it had been inhabited by a primitive clan.

     Sitting for just one second in that primordial silence you could immediately feel all that raw land unfold before you. The desire to discover, the necessity to survive, the mystery of the meaning of life unfolded right in front of your eyes and you could almost see one of these prehistoric men looking out there, trying to give an answer to all this. It is unavoidable: whether that man asked himself more questions than others and to the point maybe of drawing this mystery on the walls of his cave, whether he was so wise to choose the place most fit to protect his group, whether he plainly was physically stronger than others, whether imagination gave him more bravery or aggressiveness, whatever it was, you could feel the presence of a leader and his followers. In a basically egalitarian group where behaviors were always functional to survival and everybody shared a code of conduct out of necessity, still the leader stood out, at least as much as to determine the group’s decisions and take a direction into history. Things got a bit more sophisticated in time, but the core of a leader remains that of someone who will stand out from the group, with the approval of the group, ready to fight to the end for his vision and bring with him his group. 

     The practice of leadership, especially in its early developments, has always been connected with fighting and war. Effective leadership determined survival, domination and expansion. Peace was rare in ancient societies. The perception of life was different: men and women experienced battles recurrently in a lifetime. Only in recent times we began to shift the fight for survival from the battlefield to politics and economy. After all von Clausewitz called the latter ‘the continuation of war by other means’. A leader was in fact a military leader. It is highly probable that in ancient times there were other forms of leadership (philosophy, the arts, behavior) however these were either grouped under the military leader, which was considered out of necessity the highest form of leadership and the only worth writing about, or the information and narration got lost through the dust of time as it did for many other ancient books, only the very essential books being considered worth to survive time.

     Leadership was a natural phenomenon, instinctive, effective, immediate. There was no elaboration, it simply proved effective in terms of evolutionary advantage in prehistoric human relations and it continued as an indispensable part of the prehistoric life. The idea that leadership was some kind of behavioral process that humans progressively elaborated on is off road. Leadership has to do with instinct, inborn complex patterns of behavior.