Human Nature

, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp 23–58 | Cite as

Evolutionary Models of Leadership

Tests and Synthesis
  • Zachary H. Garfield
  • Robert L. Hubbard
  • Edward H. HagenEmail author


This study tested four theoretical models of leadership with data from the ethnographic record. The first was a game-theoretical model of leadership in collective actions, in which followers prefer and reward a leader who monitors and sanctions free-riders as group size increases. The second was the dominance model, in which dominant leaders threaten followers with physical or social harm. The third, the prestige model, suggests leaders with valued skills and expertise are chosen by followers who strive to emulate them. The fourth proposes that in small-scale, kin-based societies, men with high neural capital are best able to achieve and maintain positions of social influence (e.g., as headmen) and thereby often become polygynous and have more offspring than other men, which positively selects for greater neural capital. Using multiple search strategies we identified more than 1000 texts relevant to leadership in the Probability Sample of 60 cultures from the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF). We operationalized the model with variables and then coded all retrieved text records on the presence or absence of evidence for each of these 24 variables. We found mixed support for the collective action model, broad support for components of the prestige leadership style and the importance of neural capital and polygyny among leaders, but more limited support for the dominance leadership style. We found little evidence, however, of emulation of, or prestige-biased learning toward, leaders. We found that improving collective actions, having expertise, providing counsel, and being respected, having high neural capital, and being polygynous are common properties of leaders, which warrants a synthesis of the collective action, prestige, and neural capital and reproductive skew models. We sketch one such synthesis involving high-quality decision-making and other computational services.


Leadership Prestige Dominance Collective action Neural capital Cross-cultural 



Thanks to Barry Hewlett, Raymond Hames, and Leslie New for helpful comments during the preparation of this manuscript. Additionally, this manuscript was greatly improved thanks to thorough review by Mark Van Vugt, Chris von Rueden, and an anonymous reviewer. This research was funded by National Science Foundation Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences award 1628509. Original submission: August 16, 2017; Acceptance: May 17, 2018

Supplementary material

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12110_2019_9338_MOESM2_ESM.xls (106 kb)
ESM 2 (XLS 106 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyWashington State UniversityVancouverUSA

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