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How the system creates accidental gurus

We think of leaders and influencers as imbued with special skills and qualities – either innate or hard-won merit – that propels them to success, high status and financial rewards. Self-help books on how to build leadership skills abound.

However, my research modelling the evolution of social networks suggests it is less about individual skills and talents and more about a dynamic social process – one driven by our instinct to conform to those around us, as well as to seek influence.

The modelling reveals that even when everyone in a group has exactly the same attributes, a leader will still emerge from the process. The study, The Origins of Influence, was recently published in the journal Economic Modelling.

Illustration by Dionne Gain.

Illustration by Dionne Gain.Credit:

The findings suggest our view of leadership is over-glorified. It invites a rethink of the notion that a person who gains a leadership position through a competitive process is necessarily more worthy. This is especially so in subjective fields such as art, music, politics or fashion.

A leader is someone who has followers – something they may or may not directly control. My aim was to build a model that stripped away unique attributes to see if a leader will still emerge.

To do the analysis, I developed a computer simulation populated with identical “agents” all employing the same rules of behaviour to govern their decisions. They could either act autonomously or imitate one another. They could not campaign or persuade others but were rewarded for doing what was popular and received a premium for being ahead of the crowd.

I then let the simulation run thousands of times to see what would happen. In the beginning, the actions were random and uncoordinated, but over time, the agents, responding to the payoffs, learned to coordinate and began to organise, and a leader emerged.

While the model is an extreme – in the real world there are numerous negotiations going on – it does reveal that it can be less important who the leader is, than the fact that the group accepts that one person will come out ahead, and organises behind them.

How you get to be the eventual leader is that you slowly build up influence, and as you build up influence, others see that popularity and decide to join the group. So it’s a self-reinforcing process – a snowball effect.

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