November 18, 2019

Personality and Leadership in Mammalian Societies

Jenn Smith, Mills College

From the popularity of authoritarian political leaders to the under-representation of women in boardrooms, personality and leadership are important themes in current human social affairs. Evolutionary approaches can offer novel insights into the rules favoring individual variation in behavior. First, I draw from my long-term field study on California ground squirrels to evaluate the role of individuality and document multiple personality traits (e.g., consistent social metrics, risk-taking, communication styles) within two populations of free-living rodents. Second, I integrate seemingly divergent perspectives to identify the core functions of leadership in human and non-human mammals. This comparative perspective reveals that female-biased leadership is rare across the mammalian lineage but that species that follow strong female leaders (e.g., elephants, hyenas, orcas) often gain social support and ecological knowledge from female elders. These findings offer insights into the evolutionary forces favoring personalities, dominance-style leaders, and sex-bias in human societies.

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