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Gorilla leadership: the ‘big ape’ factor

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Thirty years ago, many biologists saw higher primates, including humans, as natural-born “killer apes,” their lives defined by competition, territoriality and dominance.

Leaders among apes fought for status and position, just as people did. Case in point: One afternoon at a zoo in the Netherlands, a burly chimpanzee chased another male around the compound. You could hear their screaming far away. They ended up at opposite ends of an oak tree, panting as they gradually calmed down.

But biologist Frans de Waal observed something more. After about 10 minutes, the alpha male reached out toward his adversary, fingers extended, palm upward, in a peace offering. The apes descended together, then embraced and groomed each other.

De Waal went on to make a career arguing that we primates are more cooperative and less ruthless than scientists thought. His book, Chimpanzee Politics, has been singled out as recommended reading in Congress. And in a later book, Good Natured, he doesn’t say we were born good, but that being good—cooperative and conciliatory—is the likeliest way to thrive in a group.

Lesson for leaders: However competitive your business climate, count reconciliation as one of the tools in your kit.

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