7 Primal Ways to Be a Better Leader

Leader FinalEverywhere you go these days it seems like there’s big talk about leadership. Schools build curricula around it. Businesses feel the need to train their employees in it, including those who aren’t in management roles. Whereas leadership used to be seen primarily as a function, it’s now touted as a virtue. We’re told everybody should want to be one and is, of course, in need of whatever x, y, z leadership program is being sold that day. I guess I see both sides of the coin here. While I think pushing leadership ad nausea demotes other equally valuable skills and roles like the specialist and artisan (among others), I also believe there’s purpose in cultivating a deeper command of one’s own life and in understanding how to bring self-management to bear in leading others.

The thing is, most “rules” you’ll read for improving your leadership skills focus on other people—how to understand them, how to persuade them, how to manage them, how to move them the way you want to go. While modern social organization is a far cry from our hunter-gatherer roots (and at times requires different skills), there’s something essential and timeless in the model of primal era leadership. It’s a case where cutting edge management strategy can add to but not replace enduring principle. See what Primal leadership principles speak to you.

As I often mention, most experts believe that true (i.e. “simple”) hunter-gatherer groups mostly lived in small, egalitarian style bands, which were ever shifting in their memberships at any given time. People moved within and without at will, and generally speaking there was peace between bands. Given the egalitarian organization members actively guarded in their societies and given the immediate return economy (which meant there was little to no food or other resources to be stored or fought over), “supervisory” leadership wasn’t relevant or necessary as we think of it today.

Theirs was, as far as we can know, largely a shared leadership and horizontal social structure. The band’s cohesion wasn’t held together by a central authority but by elaborate kinship codes that guided people’s behavior and served as a template for assessing conflicts. Within this shared value system, communication and consensus ruled.

While all members took responsibility for the band’s solidarity and functionality under this system, there sometimes were hunter-gatherer societies in which a leader was chosen whose authority was very limited—perhaps only to guide the group through a particular situation. Contrary to what the modern mind would think, these weren’t the strongest or boldest members but often the most modest even if they were also people with a particular skill relevant to the occasion.

Over time, certain groups like the Aborigines developed laws of conduct and leadership in the form of sacred stories, which were transmuted by shamans. Rather than directives, they could be cautionary tales. One such example was a story known as the Black Swan, which warned of the use of fear and manipulation with others, the denying of responsibility, indulging in conflict and blame and abandoning others in search of individual gain.

What can we, however, glean from all this? Can we take what research tells us about the roughly prevalent hunter-gatherer model of leadership and decipher lessons for modern management? I tend to think so.

Here are what I’d consider 7 Primal ways to be a better leader….

1. Cultivate humility.

Humility was a penultimate priority for leadership. At risk was the sacred egalitarian code members carefully guarded for their mutual best interest. These days humility is a rare quality.

The fact is, real confidence isn’t about pomp or aggression. You’ve likely met people in authority who push their agendas, leave no room for discussion or correction and often take everything personally. These people can be miserable to work for, and most of them are probably miserable period.

Real confidence is the outgrowth of humility. It’s about being solid in yourself while also open and discerning toward the gathering of evidence and the voices of others.

Make no mistake. Genuine humility isn’t weak or insecure. It’s rooted in a knowledge of and comfort with one’s self, which is the best security anyone can count on and the most effective leadership quality, since it comes with its own checks and balances.

2. Develop a meditative or mindfulness practice.

Sure, there are health benefits to both, but there’s a different reason behind my suggesting this here. When it comes to leadership (even if it’s just about being a more conscious leader of your own life), a regular meditative or mindfulness practice encourages you to open to and hone your intuition. Bringing regular, perceptive awareness to your feelings—both your emotional reactions and your momentary instincts—will help you tap into the gut sense that can guide your leadership (and life) decisions.

Good leaders might know how to organize and keep the lid on the pot. Great leaders know how to move it all forward and where to direct their actions. They are ruled more by inspiration than order, and that flows from a keen sense of personal intuition.

3. Learn to listen and to sit with feedback.

We’ve all spent time with someone who chronically interrupts and impatiently jostles a conversation with all the darting erraticism of a pinball. (There’s a crucial difference between intensity and impatience.)

In researchers’ accounts of hunter-gatherer societies, decisions were made by consensus and often could take weeks if not months. Members would share a loose thought about the issue at hand and let it settle. On another day a different member might share a consideration. Over time, the collective energy flowed toward a given choice, and it felt natural when the decision was made official.

While most of us don’t operate with the luxury of this kind of time table, we can make the conscious decision to slow down, to invite extended discussion (i.e. more than one occasion) and to truly honor—rather than just ceremoniously entertain—outside views.

4. Accept that it’s not about you.

Related to the above point is the acknowledgment that a leadership position isn’t about your ego (or shouldn’t be). As in Grok’s day, situational or (rarer) ongoing leadership wasn’t ever about the particular individual. Lineage might have had some influence. Special skill, particularly for the immediate circumstance, might have played a role.

That said, leaders were chosen by the collective whole to serve the good of that collective whole. Furthermore, leadership was highly circumscribed, meaning there were significant limitations on the power of that person. “Leadership” was much more diffuse and representational than we consider it today. Whereas we think of supervision and imposition in our leaders now, in Grok’s day a leader’s job was more about support of the traditional process and group interest and not about a personal agenda.

Whose good are you pushing? Is it the good of the organization you’re leading and larger interests—or is it service to the self-image? (Too few seem to ask this relatively obvious question.) It’s where leaders often get sucked into controlling people and outcomes. From there they too often sacrifice the good of the organization and those it reaches as well as their integrity, ironically losing themselves as they take the process in addition to the outcome personally.

5. View your leadership as temporary.

Leadership in hunter-gather groups was often situational (i.e. temporary). In matters where guidance was needed, the person chosen played a restricted role in moving the group through certain circumstances and then promptly and modestly stepped down.

This relates closely to the point above, but it’s worth giving it its own space. When we think of our leadership as temporary (even when we’re talking about something so ongoing and fundamental and leading a family), we appreciate that we’re acting as stewards rather than owners. It’s a different mentality that lends itself to thinking in the best interest of the organization and those involved rather than just one’s self.

6. Be a visionary.

Too many people associate leadership with power rather than vision. Power is about control for control’s sake. It encourages imposition and values a few over many. A great leader holds space for the vision and invites others into that space.

Look at organizations where leaders focus on power versus those where leaders lead through vision. (Richard Branson is good example here.) Leaders who literally lead rather than just manage are there in the thick of their business. They’re excited about what they do, and that enthusiasm inspires others.

7. Tap into a core purpose.

Leaders and shamans who didn’t lead per se but often had a separate status in hunter-gatherer groups, were seen as guardians of the sacred stories. While a company doesn’t probably have a sacred story, it should have a core purpose—and a narrative that can stir those who work for that purpose and those to whom it seeks to advertise that purpose.

Offer people rules and queues and directives, and in most cases you’ll get compliance. Offer them a purpose and the chance for investment in that vision, and you’ll often get a deeper commitment and a more interesting contribution.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Primal views of leadership. Share your comments, and enjoy the end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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18 thoughts on “7 Primal Ways to Be a Better Leader”

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  1. Off topic – just got the email on the repackaged Primal Fuel, which opened with:
    “We’ve noticed you haven’t tried our bestselling, top-rated Primal Fuel.”

    Correct. I can’t find any ingredients list on line, nor even an image of that part of the container.
    No list: no sale

    The PB product page FAQs admit that there is added sucrose, which I consider to be a needless negative. Why not stevia, monk fruit or just more inulin?

  2. #1, first and foremost. I’ve worked for (and with) too many people who thought leadership meant a show of force. Such people think they’re always right, even when they’re obviously all wet. Self-confidence is a good thing but only when it’s coupled with a strong sense of humility.

    1. +1.

      I’ll work twice as hard for someone with humility as opposed to a tyrant. Also, “don’t mistake my kindness, for weakness”.

  3. This is a terrific post–as an owner of a small architecture firm, I think about this a lot, and try to have more of a “tribe” feeling in the office than, say, a military unit. So points 6 and 7 are key: when everyone is inspired by and takes ownership of that purpose–then we really do integrate and become more tribe-like.

    I’ll sum it up with a quote from my old potions master, Snape: “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
    ? J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

  4. None of these sound like what I imagine ancestral leadership was like.

    Be male.
    Be big.
    Be aggressive.

    Lacking those, withhold sex.

    1. I think those three became more important as people settled into sedentary, agrarian communities. Big male Warriors were even more important to protect land, grain stores, etc. while women became baby-making machines.

  5. From Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching…the best advice ever on leadership:

    To lead people, walk beside them …
    As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
    The next best, the people honor and praise.
    The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate …
    When the best leader’s work is done the people say,
    We did it ourselves!

  6. Such beautiful qualities of good leadership–oh what a shift would occur if all our leaders embodied them!

    I love that you listed humility first…and that you follow with mindfulness practice and listening. I really see those–and coming from a heart-centered, connected place–as pivotal to being a leader in whatever capacity.

    Also, as I read through this list, I was very clear that you DO embody these qualities, Mark. So thank you for your leadership in this community and movement.

  7. If anyone knows any further reading they’d recommend that Mark’s principles remind them of I’d be really interested if they could share them.

    1. The Lakota Way by Joseph M. Marshall. More about virtues in general than leadership specifically, but they are of course applicable there too.

  8. I liked the first paragraph. I earned an MBA because it “seemed like the thing to do” but it turned out traditional hierarchical management is not something I was interested in. I’m a software developer, I love doing that, enjoy the technology but also interacting with others and mentoring others. I taught computer science for a while and enjoyed that.

    I will add this … what Mark described are pretty good characteristics for parents to strive for.

    1. I was thinking the same re families, rather than business.

      I’ve spent much of the last 15 months with my family history torn to shreds and it’s been a brutal process . There has been no humility by the protagonists (‘leaders’ read parents) at all and this post has really crystallised for me just why it’s been so difficult.

      Very thought provoking, thanks Mark, as usual.

  9. Thoughtful post Mark. I’m a corporate director for a $4.6B specialty retailer and have been frustrated with my inability to advance beyond the glass ceiling and climb the ladder – title and power. I forgot that I can lead right where I’m at, which, at my core, is all I am about anyway. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. Mark – great post.

    I especially like the thought about viewing leadership as temporary – I’ve never thought of it that way before, and it’s a complete mind-shift.

    Quick question – have you found that thinking that way has led to a difference in your behaviour as a leader?

  11. Mark,
    Very good points, a lot of them coincide or overlap with the themes and principles in “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
    If you havent read it before, id suggest checking it out

  12. Love this post, and yes, so great that Humility ranks as the first quality. The best book I’ve read on this topic is Power Vs Force by the late David Hawkins, M.D, Ph.D. Here’s a snippet from the chapter on Power in Politics:

    “Power attracts, whereas force repels. Because power unifies, it has no true enemies, although it’s manifestations may be opposed by opportunists whose ends it doesn’t serve. Power serves others, whereas force is self-serving. True statesmen serve the people, politicians exploit people to serve their own ambitions. Statesmen sacrifice themselves to serve others; politicians sacrifice others to serve themselves… Great leaders inspire us to have faith and confidence because of the power of their absolute integrity and alignment with inviolate principles… Winston Churchill never needed to use force with the British people; Gorbachev brought about total revolution in the largest political monolith in the world without firing a shot; Gandhi defeated the British Empire without raising a hand in anger.”

    Powerful stuff.