We describe the service-for-prestige theory of leadership, which proposes that voluntary leader-follower relations evolved in humans via a process of reciprocal exchange that generated adaptive benefits for both leaders and followers. We propose that although leader-follower relations first emerged in the human lineage to solve problems related to information sharing and social coordination, they ultimately evolved into exchange relationships whereby followers could compensate leaders for services which would otherwise have been prohibitively costly for leaders to provide. In this exchange, leaders incur costs to provide followers with public goods, and in return, followers incur costs to provide leaders with prestige (and associated fitness benefits). Because whole groups of followers tend to gain from leader-provided public goods, and because prestige is costly for followers to produce, the provisioning of prestige to leaders requires solutions to the “free rider” problem of disrespectful followers (who benefit from leader services without sharing the costs of producing prestige). Thus service-for-prestige makes the unique prediction that disrespectful followers of beneficial leaders will be targeted by other followers for punitive sentiment and/or social exclusion. Leader-follower relations should be more reciprocal and mutually beneficial when leaders and followers have more equal social bargaining power. However, as leaders gain more relative power, and their high status becomes less dependent on their willingness to pay the costs of benefitting followers, service-for-prestige predicts that leader-follower relations will become based more on leaders’ ability to dominate and exploit rather than benefit followers. We review evidential support for a set of predictions made by service-for-prestige, and discuss how service-for-prestige relates to social neuroscience research on leadership.
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