Leadership

Why True Leaders Are So Rare

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Ever wonder why there are so few real leaders and never any shortage of followers? It’s biology. Humans are by nature herd animals. We may call our herds "communities" and "towns," but they’re still herds, just the same. And herds, by nature, have few leaders.

This isn't rocket science. Safety in numbers is an ancient survival instinct. When we’re around others, our brains reinforce that behavior by rewarding us with neurotransmitters that make us feel good. That’s why we evolved as social creatures.

Unfortunately, technology has made a real mess of things. Social media and messaging fool the limbic system – the part of the brain responsible for survival and response to emotional stimuli – into rewarding us every time we connect with others online. That’s why you feel that tug to text and tweet. It’s literally addictive.

If you took Psych 101 in college, you learned about a famous behavioral conditioning experiment called the Skinner box. B.F. Skinner trained lab rats to press a lever and get a food pellet as reward whenever a light came on. The rats would eventually get really good at it. They were programmed … just like when you’re on Facebook. No kidding.  

I got to thinking about this during a recent trip to California wine country. Around noon, hundreds of people always line up to get a sandwich or salad at this one place on Dry Creek Road in Sonoma Valley. They wait on long lines to order and pay. Then there’s no place to sit. Sure, it’s good food, but not that good.

Related: 7 Concepts Every CEO Has to Nail

Meanwhile there are dozens of great places to eat less than five minutes away in the quaint and lovely town of Healdsburg. No lines, no wait, and every kind of food and atmosphere you can think of. Do the masses go there? Nope. Just savvy locals.

In case you’ve never noticed, rush-hour traffic patterns are exactly the same. People will just sit and stew in stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic on crowded highways instead of taking surface streets and saving themselves all sorts of time and stress.

All this because we’re programmed to behave like lemmings. It makes us feel good. It makes no difference if there are tons of metal and wheels separating us or we’re packed into tiny little buildings like mice in a cage. We can even be talking, texting or tweeting with others continents away. It’s all the same to the limbic system.

The same phenomenon also brings us social norms. Those who support the majority viewpoint on issues are lauded by others so that behavior is reinforced in much the same way. Meanwhile those with dissenting views clam up for fear of being ostracized from the community or isolated from the herd – a dangerous thing back when the limbic system evolved.

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That’s called the spiral of science, but it’s really those same biochemical reactions in the brain that cause cultural conformity. It takes enormous individual courage, strength and discipline to override those emotional warning signs your brain puts out, break from the status quo and risk being perceived as unpopular.

And that pressure to conform is enhanced online. A Pew Research and Rutgers University study concluded that the spiral-of-silence effect is actually far worse on Facebook and Twitter than in face-to-face public forums. The same is true among users of those social networks, even when they’re not online.

So, contrary to popular wisdom, social media, blogs, personal brands and online personas only give the illusion of uniqueness and differentiation. In reality, those activities increase conformity, stifle diversity and keep you marching to the same drumbeat as everyone else. 

Herd animals, indistinguishable lemmings, behaviorally conditioned lab rats – distasteful as those words and phrases may be -- they describe the vast majority of human behavior, especially online. While the biology may go back millions of years, the effect is more pronounced in today’s 24x7, socially connected culture than ever before. 

The simple truth is, if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, innovator or business leader, you have to break from the herd and think and act differently. Yes, it takes courage, strength and discipline to overcome the powerful programming of your limbic system and the spiral of silence, but that is what it takes to lead.

You can’t lead the herd and be part of the herd at the same time. Biology doesn’t work that way. You’re either a leader or a follower. Simple as that.

Related: How to Be Happy. (Really.)