Friday, May 26, 2006

An Epidemic Requires a Baseline

"In epidemiology, an epidemic is a 'disease' that appears as new cases in a given human population, during a given period, at a rate that substantially exceeds what is 'expected', based on recent experience..."

That being said, to have a Leadership Epidemic, several components are required. First, you need a disease or infectious agent. Second, you need a means of transmission or vector to spread the infectious agent. Finally, you need a rate of occurrence that is greater than expected for a given population.

In this posting, I will focus on the final requirement, "an expected rate of occurrence." What is the expected rate of occurrence of leadership? To intelligently talk about a Leadership Epidemic, do we need to develop a leadership measure; like joules, watts or horse power?

While I have not read every leadership book ever written, I have read a great many of them. This is my impression. Of the numerous leadership books presented to the pubic every year, none attempted to define leadership in measurable, numeric terms. Therefore, I am going to assume that there is no universally accepted or even generally accepted measure of leadership. As such, we can not put a specific unit measure on leadership.

However, I would bet that most people that have worked for a company; volunteered for an organization or lived in a family have some sense of how much leadership there is in the company, organization or family; even if our measure is in gross Goldilocks units: “too much”, “too little” or “just right”.

While we may not have a number measure, most of us have an innate sense of quantity.

I suspect this sense of quantity is a function of our evolutionary development. In The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology Robert Wright provides an excellent introduction to Evolutionary Psychology: the theoretical approach to psychology that explains many mental traits as adaptations in the sense of evolutionary biology, as a product of natural selection.

In the spirit of Evolutionary Psychology, we need to think of leadership in terms of how it contributes to the survival and propagation of the individual’s genes. That is, how does being a leader or something other than a leader contribute to genetic propagation?

When I think of leadership in these terms, I immediately think of three things “risk and reward”, “opportunity and accomplishment”, “ability and action”.

Individuals that accumulate the greatest rewards, i.e. food, wealth, position, etc… have a greater chance of surviving and a greater chance of passing their genes on to the next generation. However, the greater the reward, the greater the risk required to achieve that reward.

In terms of leadership, think of a tribe. Suppose the tribe has reached a point where task specialization is beginning to occur where most of the members of the tribe have achieved a level of success that exceeds simple survival. The majority of the members are work-a-day people. As with most groups, different members will excel at different tasks. Perhaps one member is better than his neighbor at fishing while his neighbor is better at preserving fish. By focusing on what they do best, the two neighbors can achieve more than they could individually. David Ricardo is often credited with popularizing the idea of specialization comparative advantage as a fundamental tenant of economic development and prosperity.

In the evolutionary environment, this prosperity leads to rewards that contribute to the success of the neighbors and therefore the success of their genes. In essence, by focusing their energies on technical tasks, by becoming specialized technicians, and working together, the neighbors prosper. Additionally, the technician’s contribution is tangible and easy to measure. They caught 20 fish, build two houses or made five blankets. As long their numbers are up, technicians know their skills are in demand. When their numbers decline, technicians can work on getting better at what they do or switch to something they do better.

The trade-off for taking the technician path is a limit on the potential success that can be achieved. The technician’s success is limited to his contribution as an individual or member of a small team. Simply put, being a technician offers a low risk path to success for those that are willing to trade safety for lower returns; no leadership required.

On the other end of the scale is the tribal Chief. His value has very little to do with the technical tasks he performs. In fact, he may not do any technical tasks. Instead, his value is derived from intangible contributions such as his repository of knowledge, ability to resolve disputes or skill organizing scarce resources. It may even extend to embodying a standard of behavior or providing a religious figurehead. Unlike the technician, the Chief’s intangible contribution is difficult to measure.

For instance, if he successfully organizes the tribe against hostilities and the tribe survives, the tribe may think of him as a hero. However, if motivational requirements to achieve survival lead the tribe to expect unmitigated victory, they may not view survival as success. The same outcome may be seen as a failure. In the end, his skill in developing consensus, setting direction, managing expectations, executing the operation and maintaining a balance between competing elements, i.e. his leadership ability combined with the specialized capabilities of the tribe determine the leader’s level of success.

This line of thought applies to almost any leadership activity: when to fight and when to flee; when to plant and when to harvest; when to pray and when to take action. The list is endless. With so much riding on these outcomes, the potential for reward is far greater than any one technician could exact to achieve. However, the opportunity for failure is equally great. Every time you add an opportunity for success to the equation, you also add an opportunity for failure.

In many ways the leadership route is a journey marked by feast of famine proposition. In the evolutionary environment, where groups were small and opportunities were few, the all-or-nothing nature of leadership was terribly risky.

It is easy to see how the risk applies to the individuals. However, the greater effect is in the cumulative effect of the risk the group is willing to take.

Groups with a cumulative taste for too little risk fail to benefit from sufficient opportunities and decline in relationship other groups and/or the environment. Groups with a taste for too much risk suffer inordinate losses that cause decline in relationship to other groups and/or the environment. Ultimately, for a group to succeed and for the members of the group to pass on their genetic identity, a steady state that balances low-risk task-execution and high-risk group-leadership behavior has to be achieved. In other words, the Evolutionary Environment favors individuals and groups that balance risk and safety.

If you accept this line of thinking, we have a foundation that allows us to better answer the question, “What is the expected level of leadership?”

If leadership is a high-risk activity, you would expect it to relatively rare in comparison to low-risk technician activities. For different groups, the balance between leadership and technician activities would be dependent upon many factors: environment, competition, knowledge, ability, adaptability, etc… However, regardless of the actual balance, you would not expect group leadership to the prevailing activity.

Using our Goldilocks measures, we might say that the expected rate of occurrence of leadership is “very low.” Applying this level of expectation to our definition of an epidemic, for any give period of time, if the level of leadership substantially exceeds a very low level, we have met one of the criteria for an epidemic.

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