This is the fourth article in The Change Leaders series: Reimagining Work

The Change Leaders owe a debt of gratitude to Graeme Findlay, one of our very own and the author of Evolve: How Exceptional Leaders Leverage the Inner Voice of Human Evolution.

Borrowing a line from Dr. Jean Boulton (Cranfield University, UK), Graeme reminded us that: “The future is path-dependent. How we got here matters.” From this fundamental tenet of complexity theory, he took us on a whirlwind tour of our cognitive evolutionary history, pointing out key tipping points in our non-linear progression through the ages that have led us to where we are today concerning our collective ability to lead groups of various sizes and collaborate in ever more significant numbers.

Graeme’s insight is not in the standard (i.e., tired) deconstruction of leadership behaviors over the millennia, something that can be rendered in a 2×2 matrix, but in viewing our ability to cooperate through an expansive, systemic — and even holistic — lens. When viewed through such a frame — the synergistic human ecosystem — patterns of leadership behavior have indeed emerged over vast stretches of time. And those patterns have much to do with our evolution as a species.

What I’m trying to say is this: consider an ecosystem. It does not set out, per se, to be resilient. Rather, resilience emerges from the interactions of a diverse set of actors or species in a given environment, each of which is struggling to survive. Leadership is similar: we do not set out to produce leaders necessarily, yet leaders and leadership emerge as higher-order patterns nevertheless. What Graeme maintains is that our ability to cooperate at levels unheard of anywhere else in the animal kingdom is tied, directly and indirectly, to the coevolution of our language and cognitive skills. Specifically, the ratio of the size of our neocortex to our overall brain size is perhaps a fundamental cause of our ability to work together in ever-larger groups. And those larger, more cooperative groups of our ancestors, with some leading and some following, outcompeted other groups, like the Neanderthals and Denisovans perhaps, that cooperated less well and, consequently, didn’t live to tell about it (though they do live on in our genomes).

Here, chimpanzees offer us a contemporary example. Living in fission-fusion societies where subgroups break apart during the day to hunt and forage for food but come back together at night to sleep and socialize, a chimpanzee subgroup (or troop) will reach a certain size before breaking apart. Some simple math reveals that relationships grow exponentially with each new member added to the group. Thirty individuals produce a possible 435 pair relations, but when the number of individual chimps grows to 50, the number of pair relationships shoots to 1225. At some point, the number of relationships becomes so vast that the leader (or alpha male in this case) loses control, and the group breaks apart — and not happily either. If chimps had such things as separation agreements, theirs would likely read: “irreconcilable differences.”

We humans, of course, are much more complex than our simian cousins — and we’re more complex than our human forebears as well. A human from 200,000 years ago might look like we do today, but his or her brainpower was nowhere near ours. For about 150,000 years or so, humans marched along in groups of about 30, but about 50,000 years ago, we experienced a step change. In a flash, relatively speaking, the size of cooperative human groups went from 30 to 150, or thereabouts (Dunbar’s Number).

Why? Because of evolution. Namely, the random mutations in our DNA that accrued and were selected over time and engendered greater linguistic and cognitive capabilities. And those enhanced capabilities rendered unto us the ability to manage burgeoning numbers of relationships over the eons. The first and second cognitive revolutions that took place thousands of years ago (not the intellectual movements of the 1950s and 80s) produced at their height 100 million Romans cooperating without the means of electronic communications. Today, we are in the midst of what some call the third cognitive revolution, one characterized by advances in technology that are speeding up the pace of change beyond what evolution can conceivably match.

What that means for the future is uncertain. But Graeme offers an insight into what he calls the four modes (or outer voices) of leadership that proved critical at different points in our evolutionary past as groups grew in size, and the number of relationships between and among people increased exponentially. As Graeme tells it, these four modes or voices got us to where we are today — they matter — and exceptional leaders and leadership teams have mastered each one of them.

The foundation of this modal hierarchy is what Graeme refers to as the Heartfelt Voice. Leader narratives that create strong relationships based on trust among their closest allies characterize this mode (and recall that narratives aren’t just scripts, they are acts as well). This is the place of psychological safety, that mix of trust, respect, and care that affords people the opportunity to take interpersonal risks and to speak their minds without fear of reprisal or embarrassment. The Heartfelt Voice is the stuff of high-performing leaders at the team level.

Next up is the Command Voice. While this outer voice certainly compliments the Heartfelt Voice, it’s more about planning and execution through the responsible use of power. Leaders and organizations adept in this mode are disciplined operationally. That is to say, they get things done responsibly.

The Prosocial Voice is next and marks an egalitarian advancement over the Heartfelt and Command Voice. Characterized by shaping a collective sense of identity, and by helping to instill a deep sense of belonging and commitment, Leaders adept in the Prosocial Voice build relationships across traditional silos and tribes to create synergistic wholes, where different teams not only interact well but celebrate each other’s successes. The Prosocial Voice is far-reaching and includes formal and informal channels of communication. Organizations that are a reflection of the Prosocial Voice, then, can be measured by how people treat one another when the boss isn’t around.

And rounding out these evolutionary modes is the Futurizing Voice — a leader’s ability to weave a story of the future. But not just any story. A future-story is one that draws people in and invites buy-in and commitment. This is the voice, as Graeme tells it, of complex adaptive systems where communities of people are inspired to embrace change and strive toward the achievement of shared goals.

While mastering any one of these modes is easier said than done, effective leaders and leadership teams, whether they subscribe to Graeme’s terminology or not, master all four domains. I tend to think of this multi-modal mastery, if you will, as an ode to requisite variety: if the problems thrown at us by our environments require different levels of cooperation, from teams to countries, then as leaders we need at least an equal number of leadership tools (or voices) to be effective, to be resilient, and to not only sustain but to keep growing. In other words, one-trick (or one-voice) leaders will be hampered by an inability to evolve beyond a specific level of leadership, while the multi-modal leader will continue to adapt, learn, and thrive.

As for what comes next in our evolution, though, even Graeme doesn’t profess to know. But recognizing that the more complex the problem, the more people you need to solve it, he begs your assistance in helping him decipher the future of human leadership.

The English statistician George Box famously said, “All models are false. Some models are useful.” Even the vaunted Standard Model from physics is an incomplete rendition of the known universe. Still, it’s a powerful model, and powerful models, while they might exist in only two dimensions, help us make sense of our experience of the world — that’s the useful piece. And Graeme’s model is most certainly useful, not only because it helps us make sense of how we got here, which undoubtedly matters, but also because it fashions for us a useful metric: Which voice or voices have you mastered? Have you created a space where it’s safe for people around you to openly share their opinions without fear of embarrassment or ridicule? Are you using your authority — even if it’s only in your own family — responsibly and executing with discipline? Are you building relationships broadly and inviting belonging and commitment? Are you constructing a vision of the future that inspires others to embrace the change and chase after it freely? How do you know?

Editors note: If you would like to submit a piece to the Change Leaders Lab, contact us at [email protected]



Dave Cooper
Dave is a former Navy SEAL, proud member of the Change Leaders, and the founder of Verge. He specializes in facilitating change for organizations big and small.