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Following fish teach us that leaders are born, not made

Who’s in charge here? Fish adapt to their new roles. Shinnosuke Nakayama

In our society, not many people are lucky enough to have an ideal boss who they would want to follow faithfully for the rest of their lives. Many might even find their boss selfish and arrogant or complain that they don’t listen to their opinions.

We humans push the concept of leaders and followers to the extreme but they exist throughout the animal kingdom. These leaders and followers of the natural world could help us decide whether that unpopular boss can learn to be part of the team.

Leaders and followers are found in many group-living animals, such as fish, birds and primates. Group living can offer many benefits to group members, such as increasing the chances of finding food or avoiding predators. Unlike some human workplaces, groups of animals know that they need to agree on where to go and when to go there in order to take full advantage of group living.

Leaders share common characteristics, so are to some extent predictable. In humans, leaders generally show higher scores in certain personality traits, notably extraversion. Similarly, in animals, bolder and more active individuals tend to be found as leaders. Evolutionary theories suggest that boldness and leadership can coevolve through positive feedback. Individuals who force their preferences on others are more likely to be followed, which in turn encourages these individuals to initiate more often.

Following fish

This feedback results in distinct social roles for leaders and followers within a group, as shown by several experimental studies. It would therefore seem that leaders and followers are born through natural selection, and that you have no chance of becoming a leader if you are born a follower. But our work with stickleback fish suggests that while followers may not have what it takes to lead, leaders can learn to follow.

In our paper, we tested the nature of leaders and followers using pairs of fish. Sticklebacks are well known for showing individual differences in boldness, such as when foraging. When they emerge from safe cover to a risky foraging area, the bolder fish are more likely to initiate collective movement, while the shyer animals tend to follow.

Role reversal

We forced the pairs of fish to take opposite roles to see if they could switch with a little training. The shy fish was rewarded with a small amount of food every time it initiated collective movement, regardless of whether it was followed by the bolder partner or not. The bolder fish was also rewarded every time it followed the shyer member, but not when it emerged from safe cover by itself. In this way, we trained pairs to swap their natural roles and compared their behaviour to the pairs that assume their natural roles.

Our prediction was that bold individuals would perform poorly when forced to become followers, because they are less responsive to the behaviour of others in their natural role, while shy individuals would adopt the role of leader more easily. However, the results were completely opposite: for both bold and shy individuals, the tendency to lead is much less flexible than the tendency to follow. The bold fish readily adapted to following but the shy fish could not be trained to lead, even when it learnt to stop following the other fish.

We learnt that fish can learn to follow but struggle to learn to lead regardless of their personality. Certain kinds of feedback may promote or inhibit the emergence of distinct personality types in a population, but it remains to be seen whether such feedback mechanisms can account for the different flexibility between leading and following.

The inability of the fish to adjust their tendency to lead has interesting implications for human groups. Studies of group psychology in humans have shown that differences in extroversion within a group can help leaders emerge, which leads to improved group performance. Our fish pairs also showed improved group performance in foraging when the difference in boldness was greater, but only when pairs remained in their natural roles. By contrast, when the fish were forced to swap roles, performance decreased because of the weak leadership of shy fish. So when we work as a group, we might learn from the fish by sticking to the roles in which we feel most naturally comfortable, for the good of the team.

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