C-Suite Advisory

Four Prehistoric Leadership Capabilities for Today’s CEO

Graeme Findlay, Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School

Anthropology might not be a subject that you find on a typical CEO’s ‘to-do’ list. Would this change if our CEO could see how their effective leadership techniques have directly evolved from leaders in the past? What else can their predecessors teach them about being a better leader?

The study of society through pre-history is a study of the evolution of leadership. The leader-follower traits that led to larger and more co-operative groups were rewarded over time through natural selection. Larger, more cooperative groups outcompeted those groups that cooperated less well. And cooperation is always facilitated by leadership.

The leadership capabilities that led to breakthroughs in societal cooperation in the distant past are still alive and well in the successful CEO today. This is not just an academic curiosity. A knowledge of the major leadership modes given to us by human evolution should be the foundation for leadership development and even transformation.

The topic of evolutionary leadership has not been served well by some previous works, which would have us believe that we are just better-dressed versions of cave-men or wandering tribes on the ancient Savanna. Even the most cursory study of modern human behaviour can dismiss this assertion – we are much more complex. We have extraordinary cognitive abilities that our ancient forebears did not, and we put these to use in incredibly nuanced ways. But beneath all of this, some basic building blocks have endured.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the study of human cooperation through prehistory is that the development of leadership capability is non-linear. Instead of a continual, gradual increase in leadership impact, we find step changes. Anatomically modern homo sapiens appeared around 200,000 years ago. For the next 150,000 years, the basic modes of leadership and cooperation stayed constant. Then, around 50,000 years ago – in a period known as the cognitive revolution – two major step changes occurred. The size of cooperative groups suddenly grew from tens to hundreds, and then from hundreds to thousands.

The mechanisms of leadership that facilitated these step changes are with us today. Potential followers still carry the hardwiring of their ancient predecessors and look for specific things from their leader at specific times. Exceptional leaders not only have mastery of all of the leadership modes but develop the instinct to apply the right mechanism at the right time.

So, what are these modes of leadership that every CEO should be aware of?

There are four modes, best described as “Outer Voices”.

  1. Heartfelt Voice is the foundation of the leadership modes and, from an evolutionary point of view, the oldest. Heartfelt voice is a leader’s capability to create an inner circle of trusted allies. When using their heartfelt voice, a leader creates psychological safety. They create an environment where people feel safe to say what they think, to discuss difficult issues and find joy in each other’s successes. The heartfelt voice builds deep relationships and shared purpose at a personal level.
  2. Command Voice complements the heartfelt voice. Command voice is the leader’s capability to get things done and to deliver reliable outcomes to assigned tasks. A leader with a strong command voice needs to ask only once to get the required outcome. They speak and get action. They get people’s commitment to deliver and turn ambiguity into action. Organizations led by a strong command voice are strong on planning and then delivering that plan. They have strong operations and are disciplined in the way they execute.
  3. The next major mode of leadership is the Prosocial Voice, which is a more advanced outer voice than heartfelt and command voice. Today, the prosocial voice is a leader’s capability to create a positive social environment and sense of community behind business objectives. It creates an environment where formal and informal communication channels transmit positive messages; where successes are celebrated and shared; where teams interact positively with other teams. The prosocial voice is a much more egalitarian form of leadership than the heartfelt voice or the command voice. Because of that, a leader using prosocial voice can operate at a greater distance from their followers. In organizations led with a strong prosocial voice, a leader’s intent emerges informally and in widely varying contexts. It can be measured by what people say to each other when the boss is not listening.
  4. Futurizing Voice represents the final breakthrough in the impact of leadership during the cognitive revolution. It marked the emergence of the storytelling that we now associate so strongly with leadership. The futurizing voice is the ability of a leader to build a verbal picture of a future that people buy in to and then act to make happen. It is the voice of movements that start small, then grow into a groundswell of activity. Importantly in the modern context, the futurizing voice operates in complex adaptive social systems. Whole communities are moved to change and to take coordinated action in the service of big goals.

Collectively, these four voices become the Differential Voice model of leadership. The model contends that highly effective leaders are proficient at all four of the outer voices and understand when to use them. They are as effective today as they were for our ancestors.

Maybe there is an argument for at least one specific aspect of anthropology to make it onto our CEOs ‘to-do’ list!

Evolve: How exceptional leaders leverage the inner voice of human evolution by Graeme Findlay.

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Graeme Findlay
Graeme Findlay is an Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School. He consults to industry as an executive coach and change management advisor. Prior to specializing in leadership development, Findlay held executive management roles and was accountable for delivering operational transformations and performance turnarounds on world-scale mega-projects. His passion for high performance teams led to academic research at Oxford University and HEC Paris. Findlay holds a Masters degree in Consulting and Coaching for Change. Findlay is a regular contributor to the CEOWORLD magazine.
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