Professor in Evolutionary Psychology, Work and Organizational Psychology


Leadership and status

Niche-construction and the evolution of leadership

Spisak, B., O’Brien, M., Nicholson, N., & Van Vugt, M. (2015). Niche-construction and the evolution of leadership. Academy of Management Review. doi: 10.5465/amr.2013.0157



Leadership is a long-studied phenomenon, yet it remains a largely disjointed field of research. Here we attempt to unify more traditional social-science perspectives with those stemming from evolutionary studies.

We use the concept of niche construction—the process whereby individuals, through their activities, interactions, and choices, modify their own and each other’s niches—as an example of how biological and cultural evolution interacted to form the foundation of modern organizational leadership. Resulting adaptations are formal structures that facilitate coordination of large, post-agrarian organizational networks in competitive environments.

We provide three propositions to explain (1) under what conditions individuals will follow, (2) how leadership strategies will stabilize, and (3) why these formal leadership adaptations evolve over time. We demonstrate that particular leadership configurations have emerged to solve specific coordination problems and highlight the balancing act between self and group interests and how leaders must regulate this tension to maintain organizational fitness.

We conclude by making a few predictions for future organizational evolution.


Copyright © 2012– Mark van Vugt