[August 11, 2019] “Did leadership begin with the caveman?” A kid about 9 or 10 years old asked me that question a few years ago when I went to visit an elementary school class. My visit was meet a veteran day, and I was chosen to say a few words about what being a vet was all about. The boy had the sort of off-the-wall thing kids say, and yet there is some truth embedded in his question. Is leadership primordial?
There are some in the field of academics who believe that leadership is what distinguished early humans from animals and what made us ultimately the dominant species. While mainstream academic literature doesn’t call it “leadership,” they do allude to the skills required of leaders. Physical prowess, intelligence, and resilience make up the main traits.
We all admire and respect those who possess these characteristics. While physical strength is not a major trait today, it remains highly respected and is useful for leaders to be strong. The popular movie, Gladiator (2000), starring Russell Crowe shows a strong, decisive Roman General as he leads his army to battle the Germania peoples in the opening scene. After the early battle, he is betrayed and enslaved. Because he possesses both physical strength and intelligence, he makes a comeback for challenging the movie’s villain.
The attributes that distinguish a successful leader have existed since the dawn of humankind. We can read the words of ancient military men who describe those traits of the most successful military leaders. Sun Tzu, Scipio Africanus, Marcus Cicero, Augustus, and Alexander the Great just to name a few of the most well known.
Great leaders can:
- Create a compelling vision and communicate it clearly and precisely
- Be proactive and adaptable.
- Be forward-looking: predict the future and prepare for it.
- Create a desire in people to come together for the common good.
- Care for those who follow them.
This was true thousands of years ago and is still true today. The commonalities of leadership in the “caveman” era are fundamentally the same as the “modern man.” Some say that those characteristics are inborn; that there are neural pathways in the brain that have been part of the evolution of humankind and that explain the universality of leadership skills.
I’m not so sure that leadership traits are inborn; although there is new compelling evidence, this might have some truth in it. What I do know is that leadership has been around since the beginning of humans, and in that respect, it is primordial.