Book review: Selected

Emma De Vita reviews a new volume about leadership by Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja

If you throw together a random group of people and give them a task, it's inevitable that someone will quickly become leader. In their new book, Selected, Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja try to understand why, as its subtitle explains, some people lead and others follow, and why it matters.

It's a perennially important subject for management professors, and van Vugt and Ahuja propose a new theory of leadership, influenced by evolutionary science. They contend that leadership and followership emerged during human evolution. "When it comes to the workplace," they write, "the pinstripes conceal an ancient brain."

Evolution works on such long timescales that each of us still possesses a brain more suited to the savannah. That's why we prefer to feel a valued member of a small team rather than a tiny cog in a large organisation. And apparently it's why we prefer to be led by tall, strong-jawed leaders.

What to do, then, if you're a short, weak-chinned charity manager with your eye on the top job? Try to win your colleagues' approval and respect by your behaviour, and be as much a friend as a boss. Just don't entertain the idea of cosmetic surgery and muscle-bulking steroids.

- Emma De Vita is books editor of Management Today

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