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I believe there's another dynamic that contributes to the differencee between the apes' (at least the patriarchal species) and humans' leadership beahavior.

Being less evolved cognitively than humans, plus lacking the ability to vocalize and communicate ideas in a sophisticated way, leaves physical strength as the primary - or perhaps only - effective method of dominance. Since the traits of selflessness, intelligence, fairness, etc do not correlate directly with physical strength (and in some cases may correlate negatively), there are fewer opportunities for apes with those characteristics to be leaders; and the ability to develop those traits (skills?) by alpha males is obviated by their superior physical strength. It's simply not necessary to be a "good leader" in order to be effective in dominance.


Great post! I have heard from Danish anthropologists that we used to live in groups of 60 to 90 individuals. I have also heard other numbers (30 to 50 individuals). Maybe it was possible to fight the dominance/submission tendencies in so small groups, but it becomes impossible in corporations of thousands and thousands employees.

Ruth Schimel

Small, but perhaps useful point. The bonobos are matrilineal and therefore not dominated by alpha males. I've long been intrigued by their culture and what we may learn from it, metaphorically speaking.

Thanks so much for your original and interdisciplinary thinking!

Wally Bock

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Wally Bock

Thanks for your usual thoughtful, link-riddled, post, Bob. One way to extract value from this kind of research is to see if it has implications for changing the workplace. Dblwyo's point about different "strengths" of leadership seems to map to what we know about leadership in a start-up versus a corporation that's farther down the lifecycle. The comments about collaboration and innovation emphasize the source of competitive advantage in a knowledge economy.

The reason all this is helpful is that it seems we're moving toward more anthropological and biological models for the way we do work. Ricardo Semler has written about seeing the work group as a tribe (in the anthropological not Seth Godin sense) and how that implies different workplace rules and norms.


Hi Professor Sutton,

A very interesting connection between the world of anthropology and management indeed. I think its important to really look at the independent variables and not just accidentally mix concepts in a soup of related but different things.
Here is how I would break these things down.

First, the metaphorical ape was like any other animal - it feasted on animals who were less powerful than it; weaker males expected to be subjugated by the alpha. Lets be clear about the relationship: the alpha didn't protect or provide resources for his weaker peers, he did not lead them, he was just the biggest asshole in the room.

Then one day, an enlightened ape thinks to itself, "hmm, instead of spending all day beating up my peers over a chicken, why don't we work together and take out a giraffe?" The motivation to collaborate was purely mathematical. If I fight, I get reward R. If I cooperate with N peers, we can collectively take out a resource of greater than NR value, therefore giving each of us individually greater reward than each of us could find on our own.

Humans evolved to cooperate because cooperation served our innate selfish desires more than non-cooperation did.

But to effectively extract maximum collective productivity, we still needed leaders to set vision, organize resources, and manage the interests of people. So we created social contracts called "management" - a hierarchical form of governance that is not based on egalitarianism, but based on the capabilities of each performer. By participating in this contract, an individual assured him/herself that they could receive greater reward than they could on their own, in exchange for exercising their capability for the good of all.

The dysfunction of the management social contract comes when the manager violates the contract and starts abusing their power, i.e. the asshole.

What makes humans smarter than the average ape: we understand that our individual reward can be maximized when we participate in collective activities with our peers vs. when we try to dominate them.

Now, on an entirely independent thread is the issue of creativity and innovation. The only reason that creative organizations seem less "top down" than more strictly operational organizations is because the contracts are totally different: you basically have to reward creative people before they actually produce something creative. This unique nuance requires leaders to be less concerned with results in the short run and be more concerned with maintaining the right environment that is conducive for breakthrough thinking. But this is just a change of social contract. Creative organizations still need leaders (IDEO needs David Kelley and Apple needs Steve Jobs), those organizations are hierarchical at some level too, the individual contracts are just different.

I don't believe there is any conflict or inconsistency is people's expectations of their leaders. People do not go looking for control or egalitarianism. They look for one thing: Dear Leader, show me how following you will earn me more reward than following someone else or being on my own. If you can answer that question (the answer is usually a combination of vision, behaviors, coaching/mentoring), then I believe you are on the road to being an effective leader.


I'd suggest that small hunter-gatherer groups prefer a weak dominance relationship with authority dependent on the health of the group, responses to emergencies and long-term issues and the need for social cooperation and collaboration to survive. Put another way a group needs leadership, of varying strengths, but that leadership has to act on the balanced good of the whole group and not sacrifice that interest to the advantage of the leader. Given the toxic two-step the tendency would be for exploitation to develop and disrupt then damage irrevocably the prospects of the group.

Think about the big picture social dynamics of socionomic health using predator-prey analogies and also breakdowns in health due to exploitative opportunism on the part of the leadership; using the Finance Industry as the bad exemplar. It also links back logically to why rules and regulations are necessary when self-supervision fails.

While a work in progress it seems to me there's a pony or three in here regarding the design of management systems and governance principles perhaps ?

John Foster

Yes, I totally agree with the previous comment. Simply put, assholes don't collaborate. Innovation requires collaboration. I believe it has something to do with the size of the human cortex and all of the other innate goodies packed in there like oxytocin, a chemical that supports collaboration. Yet, we still have some basal instinctive behavior in the more ancient portions of our brain. At our best the cortex overrides the reptilian brain stem and we collaborate. P.S. Women seem to have more inclination to the collaborative tendencies and have more oxytocin than men.

Career Annie

I’m inclined to think that the disparity between egalitarianism and authoritarianism might be related to the importance of innovation. There might not be room for innovation in a strictly authoritarian society, since otherwise creative minds might be stifled by the alpha’s influence. (I’m thinking of how the church tried to influence Newton…) Perhaps apes place a higher biological value on group cohesion, whereas humans place more value on innovation.

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