August 21, 2016
In recent weeks I have been reading one of the classics of power, Chimpanzee Politics by Frans de Waal. Firstly, it is superb and I can recommend it highly to anyone that has any interest in human development, primates, politics or strategy.
What follows are some thoughts I had whilst reading. When written down, none are going to seem to be a breakthrough in anyway, and in fact, they seem to be very obvious, but everything is obvious once it is explained…
Power in all it’s forms comes down to one thing, dominance. Who can make others do their bidding? In chimpanzee colonies, this is decided by a complex array of relationships and behaviours. However, there will be an alpha male and he will be one of the biggest and strongest members of the colony, but also hopefully one of the smartest.
The role of the alpha male, as we know, is to protect the colony from attack, be a leader and to demand mating rights.
The alpha male is chosen by proving his dominance over other males in the colony – and the entire colony. He isn’t going to last if he can’t win virtually everyone over to his side, so this is a process which takes many months rather than being the result of one fight.
Something interesting described by de Waal, is that there are many, many “fights” inside a colony, but very few are actual fights.
There seems to be an unwritten set of rules that prevents real violence from taking place. It is as if they know that big strong males killing each other is bad for the security of the group, so it rarely happens.
In this regard I am reminded of political parties. Since an elected official is very hard to unseat, no matter what happens, they will remain until the next election. You can never really kill them off.
This is also representative of large public companies. There can be enormous amounts of bad feeling, but once managers and executives have been in place for long enough, they are very hard to unseat. For most of us, there is a probationary period of three months where we can be released at a moments notice, but once a member of staff has been with a firm for ten, fifteen or twenty years, how do you remove them?
Since this is an EU policy blog, the parallel must be obvious. The number of well placed individuals within organisations such as the European Commission who have been in place for many years and are essentially impossible to move, must be significant.
European civil servants might be the perfect example actually. In a member state, there will inevitably be some change and turnover when a new party is elected to power. They will want to have some of their own people in place. The issue then relates to how quickly they make changes, how many changes they make and how competent the newcomers are.
In the EU though, staff are appointed through an open process, so once in, a change of government in their home country ought to make very little difference – unless they are a political appointment at a very high level.
In a smaller or privately owned company, there is very little that can be done through internal politicking. At a certain level, the founder or majority shareholder can step in and resolve almost any matter. He or she has permanent dominance in the environment. No matter the problem, he or she will be almost impossible to unseat.
CEOs of public companies do not always have this power, especially in the modern world of quarterly performance. A couple of poor quarters and there might be an activist hedge fund calling for heads to roll. Even Prime Ministers and Presidents lack it – when their time is up, their time is up.
I am a firm believer that how we see the world, the mindset and prism through which we judge words and actions has a profound impact on our lives, relationships, careers and businesses.
This is much clearer to me now that I live in Malta. As much as I love the place, and I do, I often wonder about what I’m doing here… The role of both religion and politics is incredibly powerful here, especially amongst the older generations.
I would never dream of saying that the Maltese have been brainwashed, but many of my thirty-something Maltese friends describe their elders in this way. If the truth is known, I don’t know enough Maltese over the age of fifty to judge.
Mindset can be limiting or it can be empowering. Interpretation is everything.
I have no doubt that my own mindset growing up was shaped to be open-minded and question the world. Boy am I good at that! But I was not programmed for success. It is a trait that I still work on frequently.
Success, of course, can be judged in many ways – the trick is to decide what it looks like to you. These are long introspective journeys that anyone that wishes to take control of their life or assert their consciousness needs to explore. That exploration and the will to follow through will be enough to separate most aspirants from the flock.
de Waal writes at length about the machinations of power takeovers within the colony.
These takeovers are a long process where one male challenges another over a period of months. At first these challenges are small, but once an opening has been created, they become larger and more frequent until eventually the entire colony has changed it’s mind about who the boss is.
Something that was very interesting to me, is the way in which the challenging chimps look to weaken the support of the alpha chimp. By identifying close allies of the alpha and then repeatedly attacking them, they are forcing the alpha to step in and defend their friend(s). If and when this defence does not come, the tide begins to turn.
Interestingly, these attacks often take the form of a male chimp repeatedly stamping on the head and back of a female chimp. That would bring a new dimension to passive aggressive office politics!
In our society of instant gratification, this patience to work on multiple supports to a structure must be becoming ever rarer. Of course, there is a significant amount of subtlety in the way humans do this in an office, making it less visible.
Such long-term thinking, planning and execution requires great self-control and patience. It is something that we seem to have lost – whether this is true and we never had it could be asked, but a world of twenty-four hour news, tweets, updates and messages probably does not help us.
In Strategy by Liddell Hart, the author writes that in a study of thirty conflicts and two hundred and eighty campaigns, only six (around two percent) were won by a direct assault or attack. The lesson is that most victories come from hard, indirect paths and that being creative and looking for those unseen routes is incredibly important. That creativity and those paths are going to take deep strategic thought to locate.
Concentration Of Power
If you look around the world closely, it is actually quite difficult to find powerful people whose dominance has been diversified. In other words, they found a path to power (such as a successful business) but years later they are still mostly reliant upon that business.
Obviously as time has passed they have added new levers to help them achieve and further their aims, but only very few are genuinely diversified.
For example, the successful business owner might be awarded a degree or two, strengthening a reputation. He or she might even be recognised by their government – such as an OBE/MBE/CBE or Knighthood in the UK. While that strengthens their reputation still further, it does not directly add to their power.
Perhaps the greatest example in modern times is Mikhail Khordorkovsky. While he was clearly incredibly powerful as Russia’s richest man and a very successful businessman, it all ended one day when he overstepped a mark. His power really did have limits.
The new world of second citizenships that I have written about before (here) is being used by many wealthy people. These, combined with international real estate, tax havens and private jets provide little more than international escape hatches and to put small parts of their wealth out of the reach of their home government. This is unlikely to ever offer real diversification or growth for their personal power base.
This, of course, is because real diversification is incredibly difficult. Building one powerful business or organisation is very, very hard and few people will manage to create a second or third such enterprise. This is one reason why names such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson are known worldwide.
However, without that second foundation, even the wealthiest oligarch has vulnerabilities when the source of their power and wealth is attacked. In the example of Khordorkovsky, his company was broken up.
Richard Branson might actually be the best example of business diversification. He has moved himself to his island in the BVI, where I presume he legally pays no tax. I have read that he has interests in, or founded, around four hundred businesses. Plus, he is a peer of the realm and globally known. That is diversification!
Within the colony there seems to be an ever shifting array of coalitions. One chimpanzee gangs up with another, literally for a few minutes, to prove a point and then minutes later everyone is apologising to each other and order is restored.
Obviously we humans have longer memories and seem to be willing and able to hold a grudge almost indefinitely. Actually it seems that chimps have good memories, they just choose to forgive and get back to life.
Despite that, one of the core messages of the book is that chimpanzees are very strategic and make many coalitions to help them in the moment and longer-term to advance their aims.
It is worth pointing out that like the upper echelons of a large company, or a Royal Court, a university faculty, or parliament, chimpanzees live in a small world in very close proximity to a limited number of others. For those of us outside such environments, the long-term nature of the game is very different because we might just find a better job offer elsewhere and permanently step out of the bounds of the game.
In my experience, we humans are (mostly) less trusting and less willing to share our real secrets and aims with others. For those of us with that characteristic it is almost certainly holding us back. Yes, I am thinking of myself…
If we look closely we can see this in most walks of life. Many, many start-ups fail because their founders are very skilled, but fail to find co-founders with different skills, such as High Q. For example, technical development founders generally do not take on business and marketing partners soon enough.
We could all (almost certainly) benefit by working with other people more frequently and taking on a range of projects where we can add something into the mix. This is something that I am certainly trying to work into my life much more as a direct result of reading Chimpanzee Politics.
An Organisational Glow
This leads us to think about the duality of power. One can be important, influential and powerful, but it will always be enhanced by the resources he or she can muster to enhance that power.
An author, let’s say Paul Krugman, for example, can be incredibly influential. He is. However Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve will always be more powerful. Krugman offers his considered opinions about what interest rate policy should be, but Yellen actually sets that policy.
In terms of a chimpanzee colony, the larger the colony is – within limits – the more powerfully it can attack, hunt or defend itself. This is almost certainly why those fake fights mentioned above exist. If males in their prime were constantly killing each other it would be relatively easy for outside groups to attack and overpower them.
We humans handle this differently. Political leaders and the one percent field their own armies and security teams to protect themselves.
You want to make an entrance and prove your seriousness? Land your private helicopter next to your bullet proof car and turn up to your meeting with a team of ex-professional soldiers to usher you into the building.
That might sound extreme, but these days no developed world Prime Minister should be without the protections that only a nation state can provide.
If you want to be listened to at Davos, don’t speak on behalf of a Mom and Pop corner store, represent a multi-billion dollar multi-national. Don’t be Andorra, be Germany. (Apologies, Andorra).
For chimpanzees the size of their group matters and though we measure it differently – such as by gross profit or GDP – it matters to us humans too.
This all means that there can be personal, social and organisational dominance. The person of power will use one as leverage into another. So it is with chimpanzees.financialguy