Margaret Heffernan’s model of ‘super chickens’ will change the way we think about leadership


In a recent article in Real Business the author and academic Margaret Heffernan reports on work that challenges conventional wisdom of leadership and team effectiveness.

Margaret is a fearless pioneer of creative ideas. I found much to admire in her work on Wilful Blindness, an unstuffy exposition on the human capacity to deceive itself. See here for another TED link

In the Real Business article and in the TED talk at the start of this post she cites the work of William Muir who found that breeding for chicken leadership in the pecking order led to disastrous consequences.  Too many leaders, too much conflict.  In contrast, breeding for collaborative ‘follower’ behaviour produced happy, healthy unstressed birds.

 Darwinian assumptions

At very least, Muir, and Heffernan’s account of his work does offer a challenge to received Darwinian assumptions about Leadership.

I wasn’t entirely surprised by the results. I remembered zoo visits, comparing the violent and cheerless social life of the Mandrill, and the more benign practices of the bonobos.  The ethnologists explained that the bonobos thrived where there was a greater abundance of natural resources, whereas Mandrills roughed it out competing furiously for survival,

 Supergroups don’t always fly high

I also was reminded of experiments in student groups by the English psychologist Meredith Belbin. When he assembled ‘supergroups’ of high fliers, the results were predictably below their own expectations, but not those of Dr Belbin.


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