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Who Should We Learn From?

December 9, 2017 Articles, Leadership No Comments
Prince George

Andrew O’Keeffe ©2017

French lentil producers are delighted that human nature is working to their advantage. They had apparently been having a tough time, with rainy summers and government regulations. Then out of the blue, a little sunshine. When the young British royal, Prince George, started school last month there were reports that the canteen of the school serves impressive dishes. The menu included a dish of smoked mackerel on a bed of puy lentils. The lentil farmers and distributors around Le Puy-en-Velay in central France have apparently been inundated with orders from restaurants and upmarket food shops across France, Britain and beyond. There’s no suggestion that Prince George tasted the dish, nor whether he likes lentils. And clearly he did not set the menu. Just being associated with a royal is enough for others to be interested.

Humans are interested in what others are doing, especially people of high status.

Who to Learn From  

I was motivated to write on this point by a book I read recently, The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. The author, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, makes the key point that a critical aspect of human success is our learning nature. It’s been vital to our success that we acquired an ability to learn, and part of that ability is to know who to learn from. His argument, with research to support, is that we are more inclined to learn from prestigious individuals, not dominant ones.

In one study, Henrich and his associates had strangers form into small teams to tackle a group simulation survival challenge. They were studying the effect of group success and leadership influence from either prestigious individuals or dominant ones. Prestige and dominant-based behaviours were clearly distinguishable. Dominant individuals tended to:

  1. act overbearing,
  2. credit themselves,
  3. use teasing to humiliate others, and
  4. be manipulative.

Meanwhile, prestigious individuals were

  1. self-deprecating,
  2. attributed success to the team, and
  3. told jokes.

The ‘prestigious’ individuals were more influential and their leadership was associated with group success in the simulation.

The challenge – and the opportunity – for leaders is to try to use this element of our nature constructively. People are interested in what leaders are doing. People keep their eye on you. They follow your lead.

Captain Cook’s Change Management Strategy 

A leader who used this dimension for good effect was Captain Cook. In 1768, almost 250 years ago, he set off on his first voyage of discovery that ultimately resulted in his reaching New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. At that time, the scourge of such voyages was scurvy, a disease that killed half or even more of a crew. Cook did not lose one sailor to scurvy.

Before Cook sailed there was an emerging theory that scurvy was caused by a lack of vitamin C, which turned out to be correct. Cook listened to the research and instigated strict cleanliness and a diet of fresh vegetables and sauerkraut. In his book, Henrich tells the story of how Cook managed to get English sailors to eat the foreign sauerkraut, not an item they would normally relish. Cook knew that neither force nor education would succeed as a change management strategy to create an acceptance of the food. Instead, he ordered the sauerkraut to be served in the officers’ mess only. Within a week, inferring that the officers had a taste for sauerkraut, and crew began requesting servings of the stuff. Very quickly sauerkraut became so desired that it had to be rationed.

A very clever leadership approach – using human nature to achieve good outcomes. Like people watch Prince George, they watch the leader. Particularly a leader like Cook who was admired.


Andrew O’Keeffe


Andrew O’Keeffe is the Principal of Hardwired Humans which assists business leaders design and implement people strategies based on human instincts.

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