POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way
by David Trumbull

August 24, 2007

Thanks largely to talk radio, we are aware of unnecessary, counterproductive and out-right harmful government projects to build bridges to nowhere and highways to expedite the destruction of American jobs. At the same time the roads and bridges we depend on daily are unsafe and overdue for maintenance. This is just one symptom of the crisis in leadership in Washington and on Beacon Hill.

My colleague Patrick McNamara and I have become fascinated with this question of leadership. We believe we have found some answers in the latest findings of science and in ancient history and literature.

Our claim is that wise leadership is central to the establishment of order in human society. Conversely an unscrupulous leader is central to production of disorder in society. Two styles of leadership are identified: 1) a prestige-oriented style where the leader attains his leadership position via a reputation for high moral character and accomplishment. 2) a dominance-oriented strategy where the leader attains his leadership position via an ability to politically manipulate and dominate his opponents. Both styles of leadership find their evolutionary roots in the need to develop cooperative enterprises and systems of trust between individuals and in the need to punish free-riders or individuals who seek to benefit from cooperative enterprises without contributing any of the work required for success.

Like the ancient biographer Plutarch, we believe that leadership is relational and that the motivations of leaders and followers are keys to understanding leadership and change. We also find that leadership has moral dimensions. We therefore make a distinction between transforming and transactional leadership. Transactional leadership is the process whereby one person takes the initiative in making contact with others for the purpose of an exchange of valued things. Transformational leadership has a greater moral content in that it transforms followers into moral agents and leaders in their own right. We show that these lessons on leadership can be found in the ancient Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch.

Plutarch taught and wrote in the Roman Empire in the second century of our era. The aim of his successful school of rhetoric and philosophy was to turn boys into men with the intellectual and moral strength to be leaders. His theory of leadership is worked out and illustrated in a series of biographies of leaders of the classical age. He argued that emulation of the moral and intellectual virtues of others could trigger leadership skills in anyone who had a little ambition. We look at Plutarch’s insights into emulation and leadership; we then summarize the scientific literature on emulation and leadership theory. We then conclude with recommendations on how to incorporate emulation as a focus into future leadership studies.

Our book, An Evolutionary Psychology of Leader-Follower Relations ( ISBN: 1-60021-562-9), is available from Nova Science Publishers (