Social Dominance: What Newborn Babies Are Teaching Us About Leadership

I get to teach the subject of leadership on a regular basis.  I often start the session by asking the audience to call out their answers to the following question – “What is the definition of leadership?”  Almost every time, one of the first two answers is “Someone who is in charge.” Interesting answer. 

Do you know a leader when you see one?  It’s getting harder and harder.  They come in all shapes and sizes, different nationalities, male and female, young and old, slacks and jeans, shaven and unshaven, leather shoes and flip-flops, educated and average everyday individuals. Leadership is more than just a position.  

We all look for something different in who we allow to influence us, even BABIES!  A recent study on Social Dominance by Lotte Thomsen at Harvard University reveals that there may not be much difference between adults and newborns in how they identify leadership.  The research shows that by watching animated battles between various sizes of blocks, children between 11 and 16 months old spot trends of dominance!  They spot ”who is in charge”. 

Here’s what we learned that newborns know about leadership:

  1. Who’s The Boss! – Babies understand that size matters.  That bigger, stronger, faster objects often defeat smaller ones.  Even babies know who’s the boss.
  2. Anomalies – Babies understand that some things just don’t fit.  They defy logic.  When a smaller block would defeat a larger one in their simulated exercises, newborns stared at or pondered these objects 67% longer.  Scientists view this as an indicator that even babies know when something does not make sense.

Thomsen says “Infants come into the world with certain basic concepts even before they have language – they are prepared to understand physics and causality.  What we are suggesting is that a basic understanding of social relationships is also one of the building blocks of the mind.”

In addition,  Sara Cordes who studies infant cognition at Boston College in New York say ”the data are quite good. Infants seem to be aware of social dominance much earlier than we thought.”   To read more about this study, click here.

While babies tend to be mesmerized by social dominance, I tend to be mesmerized by the following when looking for quality leadership:

  1. A Biblical Worldview
  2. Vision
  3. Character
  4. Competence
  5. Generosity
  6. Sustainability
  7. Creativity
  8. Maturity
  9. Relational Intelligence
  10. High Capacity

So what do you look for in leadership?  Is it similar to an infant – “Someone in charge” – or is it a more mature, complex set of qualities?

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Brian Dodd
Brian Dodd is a church stewardship & leadership consultant. See www.briandoddonleadership.com for additional insights.