Leadership: Seeing the World through Primate Eyes

It’s not a trick. We’re always seeing the world through primate eyes. How does that shape the world we consciously see?

Precedence relies on cultural markers, but at the same time, those judgments also reach deeper into the primate mind. We look at common signs of social status, but on some level we’re also using a much more raw set of categories. Who looks like the biggest physical threat? Who holds themselves like a leader? Who are possible mates? Who looks like they might be competing with us for our own mate’s attention?

Primatology Is for Parties

Merry Party in a Tavern (Dirck Hals, 1628)Imagine you walk into a room at a party. The “culture” part of your thinking might quickly analyze what people are wearing, and what they’re doing. But there is a deeper, more instinctive level of analysis going on inside you, too.

For many people, this analysis of data goes on at a subconscious level. The pretty, flirty woman might get some glares. The big guy over there might earn himself wary respect. That older guy (or gal) with a circle of people around him giving him respect is probably a silverback. This is the primate mind, giving its two cents.

The social and instinctive categories interact. Social skill requires not just knowing the cultural symbols of power–a good watch, nicely fitting clothes of good quality, etc.–but also recognizing subtle clues. These signs are read in body language, tone of voice, and interactions with others. They are best revealed by subtle interactions, not static facts. The quality of eye contact, for instance, is at least as important as how much your glasses cost.

Leadership and precedence are complicated. Reading the signs can be more an art than a science. There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, but I’d like to focus on two specific ones here. The first is this “self-confidence” that people talk about, and know when they see, but can’t usually quite explain in words. The second is “leadership”–again an amorphous concept more often recognized from its effects than its source.

Keep Calm and Carry On

So what is this mysterious “self-confidence” people talk about? We can talk about thinking this way or that about yourself, but it’s really the ability to effectively sort threats out and react appropriately. Leaders keep their calm. Effective, confident leaders don’t act threatened by their environment or members of the group.

But this calmness isn’t just a calm mind, it’s also a calm body. It doesn’t matter how wonderful you think you are on a conscious level if you have sweaty palms, a tense face, and shaky legs.

Some non-leaders often act threatened by others in the in-group. They challenge others in the group, consciously or unconsciously, trying to gain status. Other non-leaders, confident in their own roles within the group, don’t take part in that game, except to defend their own position.

Self-confidence isn’t just thinking the world of yourself. Self-confidence is knowing how you fit in on a primate level, and being comfortable with that position.

Taking Responsibility Isn’t About Taking

Effective leaders take responsibility for the group. Though these leaders don’t act threatened by members of their own group, they recognize threats to the group as a whole and take action on them–personally, or by directing others.

The Life of Buckingham (c.1855) by Augustus Leopold EggInternal threats to a group are actually often handled by non-leaders. If a leader is recognized and effective, then a threat to their position is a threat to the status quo. That means that others in the group will defend their position, as a way of maintaining their own positions.

If a leader is having to personally fend off challenges to his or her position, it’s a sign that the group itself is unstable. If a leader gets the reputation of taking care of himself first, and the group second, then challenges (successful or not) will inevitably arise.

“Looking Out” for Others

When we add these two factors of primate leadership together, we see something interesting develop: while non-leaders struggle for precedence within the group and struggle to maintain group stability, people in leadership positions watch outside the group for threats, while relying on others to defend their position.

That kind of model might sound counter-intuitive in Western culture, where an every-primate-for-himself model has been propagated. “Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw” leaves no room for the calm leader. But if we watch the best leaders through primate eyes, we might see more than we expect.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s