Peter Gronn: Early human society hunted, gathered – and worked without 'leaders'

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For about 94,000 of the 100,000 years of human history, people lived and organised themselves as hunter-gatherers without a centralized leadership apparatus. Hunter-gatherers began the transition to early chiefdoms and embryonic states between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago. Only in the previous 100-500 years have there been state-level polities.

The earliest human societies were acephalous: they existed without formal rulers or leaders. For this reason, they were also probably without heroes, a pattern which is starkly at odds with what has been claimed of human history generally and which also contrasts with the contemporary leadership field.

Here, thanks to the influence of charismatic and transformational leadership, a cult of exceptionality or a hero paradigm has influenced leadership strongly during its re-emergence. In hunter-gatherer societies, however, nomadic individuals had "no real authority over each other" and there was "the closest approximation to equality known in any human societies". Distinctions based on power, wealth, prestige and rank, although not gender, were largely eliminated.

A major co-ordination problem for hunter-gatherers was the capture and killing of game: male band members worked together to achieve a kill as they (and their families) were dependent on one another for this food source.

There may have been nominal or incipient chiefs and leaders, "sometimes women but usually men" and usually adult heads of households, but these were kept in line by a strict regime of scorn, ridicule, criticism, irony, intimidation, ostracism, disobedience, desertion, expulsion and even killing. A wise hunter with pretentions to lead, therefore would learn to sit quietly with the other men, and "[allow] the blood on his arrow shaft to speak for him". At best, we have evidence here of a rudimentary division of leadership labour. In practice a headman or an informal leader might step forward to make decisions only "as long as the band welcomes him to do so", with bands having a series of such individuals "who come forward when their particular expertise is needed".

Taken from the inaugural lecture by the Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, 'Leadership: Its genealogy, configuration and trajectory'

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