Why did we, Homo sapiens, survive into modernity while others died out over time? According to Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, the answer lies with evolution. Starting with our first tribal collectives, humans evolved acute collaboration and community skills. That sort of organization keeps us alive. But there’s a catch…
Simon Sinek: The reason we have leaders goes back to 50,000 years. When Homo sapiens step foot on this planet, there were other hominid species that existed, but we survived and they died off. And one of the reasons is because we work together. And for 40,000 of the 50,000 years we've been on this planet, we lived in populations that were never bigger than about 150 people. That all changed when we started farming 10,000 years ago. But there's still an inherent problem with living in a population that's about 150 people. We're all hungry. What if somebody brings food back to the tribe and dumps it on the ground? We all rush in to eat. And if you're lucky enough to be built like a football player, you can shove your way to the front of the line. If you're the artist of the family, you get an elbow in the face. This is a bad system because the odds are that if you punch me in the face this afternoon, I'm probably not going to wake you and alert you to danger tonight. Bad system. And so we evolved into hierarchical animals.
We are constantly assessing and judging each other all the time. Who's alpha to us? Who's more dominant in the pecking order? Sometimes it's informal, but very often it's formal like in an organization. We know what the rank structure is. People have titles that inform us who's more senior and who's more junior. And when someone is more senior, we defer to them. So going back to those cavemen times when we assess that someone is alpha to us, we voluntarily step back and allow our alphas us to eat first. So our alphas get first choice of meat and first choice of mate. And though I may not get to eat first, I will be guaranteed to eat and I won't get an elbow in the face. Good system. Nothing has changed in our modern day.
In other words, we're used to deferring to and giving special treatment to those who are higher in the pecking order. However, none of those perks come for free. You see the group is not stupid. We don't give all those advantages to our leaders for nothing. There's an expectation. There's an expectation that if danger threatens the tribe that the leader, the one who's better fed and more confident, who's stronger, will rush towards the danger to protect us. That's why we gave them first choice of mate because they might die first and we want to keep their genes in the gene pool. We're not stupid. And so what makes us loyal and love and respect our leaders is when we know that they uphold that deal. When we have visceral contempt for some of our leaders, like we have this visceral contempt for some of the banking CEOs and their disproportionate salaries and bonus structures, it's because we know that they allowed their people to be sacrificed so they could keep their bonuses and salaries. Or worse, they chose to sacrifice their people to protect their bonuses and salaries. And this is why we do not trust them, we are not loyal to them, and why we sometimes have visceral contempt for them. The leaders we admire, the leaders we follow are the ones that we know would sacrifice their interests to take care of us. That's the deal. That's the anthropological definition of leadership. It is always balanced. The perks of leadership are not free. They come at the cost of self-interest. They come at the cost of taking care of those in our charge.