The discussion of baboons in Harvard Business Review, as well as here and at the HBR site, reminded me of some intriguing work by anthropologist Christopher Boehm about whether humans (and other apes) are "prone to dominate or live harmoniously with each other." The puzzle that Boehm tried to untangle was why, given that chimps, gorillas, and Bonobos (with which we share over 98% of the same genes) are so distinctly hierarchical and dominated by alpha males; yet studies of human hunter-gathers show that they are so distinctly egalitarian. Boehm studied 50 small, non-literate cultures to see how egalitarian they were, and why. He found that they were quite deliberately egalitarian- - and believed so strongly in maintaining political parity among adults, that males who turned into selfish bullies or who just tried to boss around everyone too much we were treated as "moral deviants." Their peers responded aggressively by shaming, ostracizing, and ejecting them from the group.
Boehm's interpretation of this intolerance for bullying and self-aggrandizement is fascinating, both in terms of the evolutionary basis of the no asshole rule and the tug of war that you see constantly in society between the numerous people prone to grab power and goodies for themselves and the numerous people that fight back to stop them (think of the current battle over executive pay). Boehm's interpretation is that human hunter-gathers were actually quite similar to their fellow apes in that "they were prone to dominate each other," and thus "if these people had not so vigilantly worked against inequality, they would have soon turned hierarchical." To put words in Boehm's mouth, people in these tribes aggressively enforced the no asshole rule as a deterrent against excessive dominance.
Boehm goes on to make a fascinating statement about we humans and our closest relatives that I think explains a lot about the behavior we see in so much of society: "We must ask, then, why a species so inclined to domination has been motivated to insist that power be shared so equally. And here, I believe, is the answer: Just as all four of the aforementioned species have strong propensity to domination and submission, so do they naturally resent being dominated." In other words, we are both attracted to power (and to the powerful) but hate being pushed around and have a desire to parity (or more egalitarian relationships).
I've been thinking about this a lot this morning because these tensions -- which clash the point of being irreconcilable-- help explain why there is so much inconsistency in human social behavior. It also explains why being a leader requires walking a tightrope. On the one hand, people want a leader who they see as strong and in control (and leaders want to dominate their followers), but followers also want a leader who is unselfish, benevolent, and egalitarian. Striking just the right balance here, day after day, isn't easy for any leader -- and as I wrote about in the HBR article, the dynamics of power make it even tougher because of the toxic tandem (people in power tend to become oblivious to their followers; while followers tend to watch their leaders actions very closely). Yet to walk the tightrope, leaders need to be especially in tune with how their people react to every little move they make.