Who’s the leader of the pack? Leadership lessons from the animal kingdom

05 April 2016 -


There are many definitions of leadership, many types of leaders. When trying to improve personal or team leadership and management capability, it pays to look at animal behaviour

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

Dominance and submission are terms rarely found in management tomes.

They are more likely to be found in curiously opposite texts: the erotic, pleasure-seeking world of sexual preferences and perversions and the cold, controlling world of religious practice and faith. Or, perhaps in describing well-suited but maladjusted types.

The odd couple; the co-dependent; the sickly suited. Neither dom nor sub are good words. They are, quite simply, not “polite” concepts.

But they are at the heart of management and leadership. Just go to a board meeting and watch!

The increasing cases of bullying we see today are usually about a manager not knowing how to dominate and/or an employee unwilling to submit.

And yet any observer of their domestic pet sees, on a daily basis, the interplay of dominance and submission. In the animal world, dominance and leadership are almost interchangeable concepts.

Animals – everything from chickens to lizards, but especially primates – establish their power, leadership and authority by aggressive dominance. The alpha male has choice over the females by his aggressive display of force, strength and will.

Pet enthusiasts try to breed dominance in their pets. It’s no accident that tattooed, aggressive young men choose rottweilers and other bull-terrier breeds or crossbreeds to emphasise or enhance their masculinity, their aggressiveness and their (anti) social dominance.

Some dog breeds seem to scream “don’t mess with me, I am top dog.” Others specialise in submission, often to a human looking for a child substitute. Killer dogs and lap-dog poodles.

But dominance is also a social and a comparative concept. Social animals form into flat, but distinct hierarchies with three to four levels: the alpha male or the matriarch; the senior wives; the junior wives; the near-adolescents.

But you don’t have to go on safari to see dominance; kindergartens have all the data you need.

Observe a group of four-year-olds. Some steal toys and attention: they get what they want more by force than charm. They bully, threaten and take what they want. Others get what they want by early forms of charm and assertiveness. They disarm by directness but not of a threatening nature.

And this is the beginning of two forms of dominance – pro-and anti-aggression.

So where does dominance come from?

As always, a mixture of nature and nurture. Parents are, of course, to blame in the nurture bit. Those who major on authoritarianism, rules and restrictions can encourage either strong dominance or submission, depending on the temperament of the child.

It has long been known that the bully and the bullied often share various psychological characteristics. Neither is assertive. Those who prefer authoritativeness, warmth and reason breed compliant but appropriately assertive, children. There are, in short, healthy and unhealthy parental styles.

By the time they reach the age of work, adults appear to have a well-developed capacity for dominance and status-seeking. Getting ahead, being promoted, having a big staff under you is very desirable and admirable.

Some have this need more strongly – others do not. But if you do not have powerful “dominance need” genes, it does not necessarily follow that you are submissive. You may simply conform to the role.

After all, one needs to know when to be a follower and when a leader.

The army believes you have to learn to be a good follower before you can become an effective leader. And they certainly know about “dom ‘n’ sub”.

You have to know how and when to take orders (unquestioningly) and equally when to give them.

The whole system works on this principle and rather well. All armies follow the same formula and have for thousands of years.

People learn to conform, submit to the roles, rules and other requirements of the organisation. They have to learn to be reasonable, reliable and responsible.

There are more acceptable psychological and “business speak” words for dom and sub. These include striving for superiority, status-seeking, need for power.

But in the adult business world, dominance and submission are not antinymous concepts. As soon as you translate the concepts into ‘status striving’ and ‘conformity’, then it is clear. It’s a matter of knowing what is required and when. Sort of business etiquette.

Dominance is related to robust, rigorous leadership; submission to being rated as someone with potential. The two go hand in hand.

Those who can’t swap roles never get on, because they do not understand when to give and take orders.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School

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