We can never deny how much an animal we humans are. Like baboons, wolves and lions we yearn for esteem inside our tribe or pack. Our brain checks for our relative position inside our environment more than once per second. This desire is prevalent in much of what we consume from our airline and hotel status, to our work title, to our tax forms, which in the US have a role “head of household”. Even my LinkedIn profile tells me how I rank compared to my peer group. We strive for ESTEEM because of the advantages it provides whether better seats, lower prices, special access or more or higher quality mating partners. Thanks to all the advantages that high relative position affords us, people do everything they can to ‘game’ any system that promises relative advantage compared to others. This is where the dark side yields its ugly head in the human animal.
In nature, monkeys have been caught ‘lying’. For example, a monkey may find a very big and tasty morsel of food. He calls to the troop not to inform them of the food, but instead of an impending predator. The troop runs to safety which allows the monkey to have the whole meal for himself. Cheating the group over and over will allow this monkey to get bigger and stronger than the other monkeys who always share. Once this physical power advantage is in place, the monkey who “lied” can use it to gain other advantages like the best food, the best mates, the best of anything he wants. Because he is now always getting the best, he can maintain this strength advantage and not only live a more stress-free life, but also have the best chance to pass his genes onto the next generation.
Humans are not dissimilar animals. However, humans have created systems that go beyond nature, like money, corporate hierarchies, government bodies, laws and regulations which are all open to manipulation for the purpose of an individual or small group of individuals to gain advantage over others. Unlike the monkey who needed to have physical strength and size to maintain advantage, the human only needs to manipulate ideas and perceptions to maintain control.
This is the reason that we see many psychopaths able to climb the corporate ladder even if they do not deliver results. This is why companies and people who threaten their competitors with lawsuits get away with so much imbalanced reward. This is why scammers get rich and one of the reasons why Donald Trump is doing so well even with all his lack of political experience, specific plans of action and flat out lying.
The questions that need to be asked are: Is this a natural part of the human species that must simply be accepted and embraced or is there something we should be doing as a society to balance it? Or maybe nature itself brings any imbalance into balance?
History is filled with many examples of the elevated relative advantage of a few who used their power to abuse the masses. The outcome was always the same. In the UK, there was the Magna Carta, in France was the French revolution where the royal family lost their heads (literally), in China came Mao and the cultural revolution, in Russia came the ideas of Marx, and in the US came the Declaration of Independence which are just a very few of the many examples. Arguably some of those situations turned out better than others. The main balancing factor against runaway advantage of the few over the many is FAIRNESS combined with common interests and TRUST leading to viable revolution which overthrows the oppressors. In some cases the revolution leads to inclusive and democratic ways forward, and in others new oppressors are put in control where the cycle will inevitably repeat itself.
In our companies, in our industries, and in our governments, revolution from time to time may be necessary, but what if we could avoid the unnecessary and damaging revolutions? Why not put management in place who embraces diversity and fairness and leverages them towards sustainable competitive advantage for all instead of accruing it for themselves? If we want to make a sustainable future going forward, then maybe we need to begin rewarding fairness, trust, and other characteristics of our leaders beyond their perceived relative level of power.
In the animal kingdom physical strength is required to maintain control over others, but the human environment only requires dedication to an idea. Do we really desire the animal in us to control our society or do we want to use our unique human spirit that embraces fairness, trust, and compassion to drive us forward? Is it possible? John Lennon thought it to be possible, but what about you?
Learn more about the S.A.F.E.T.Y.™ Model this article is based upon at brainleadership.com