What can we possibly learn from primates on leadership, you're probably wondering. Well, as it turns out, a lot. 

Over the past 6 million years, scientific evidence suggests that ape-like ancestors have slowly evolved into what we know human beings to be today. In a nutshell, we used to be primates but around 4 million years ago, we started bipedalism, which is the ability to walk on two legs, and developed from there. 

A common belief we hold is that animals operate on instincts while humans on some superior level like cultural traditions or learnings. But Frans de Waal, twelve-time author, biologist, ethologist and Professor of Primate Behavior in the Department of Psychology at Emory University says that's a wild oversimplification.

His studies found that primates do in fact learn culturally and various groups of primates hold their own traditions. So what does this have to do with leadership?

In a fascinating chat with de Waal, on my podcast Unmessable, we explored the parallels between Chimpanzees or Bonobos primates and human behavior on a social and political level. The similarities are striking. Perhaps this behavioral likeness is linked to our DNA being 99 percent the same, but up until recently, we have ignorantly assumed we are superior to primates, when in fact they can teach us so much.  

These are my biggest take-aways.

The most popular alpha males demonstrate high levels of empathy.

Empathy, known as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another" is a cornerstone of good leadership. In a tribe of primates, it's often those demonstrating high levels of empathy that earn the most respect and savor the longest tenure. 

We see this in human behavior when, say, a terrible natural disaster occurs. In the event of a devastating hurricane or earthquake, it is typically an important figure like the Pope or a President who travels to that location and tries to reassure people that everything will be fine.

The same happens in a tribe of primates. While it's been assumed that alpha males are those who use intimidation or physical dominance to rise to the top, the typical alpha male in a tribe is a peacemaker, unifier, chief consoler and overall has a very positive role. Ultimately, the best leaders are the ones that stand for the tribe's well-being, not just their own. 

Bully alpha male's tenure is short and often ends badly.

It should come as no surprise that primates exhibiting malicious tendencies don't get far in terms of respect and support. This is something that's definitely seen in primate tribes, too. 

Often, when a primate exhibits bullying behavior, the others work together to oust him. He may be in power for a while, but the rest will band together at the first chance they get to support another brave primate who dares challenge this figure. More times than not, not only do bully alpha males lose their position of power, but it often ends in death. 

Drawing upon this principle, if you lead with fear, know that it's a short-term play, but if you are in it for the long-run, leading from a place that looks after the collective interest is the best way to go.

Well-respected alpha females are firm.

Female primates that exhibit firmness and, at times, even aggression are more effective leaders. 

So in the business world, as a female, if you want to garner the respect of your colleagues, know that being firm is an effective way to do this when the circumstances call for it. While admitting failures and shortcomings are key, acting with conviction and doing what's best for the common good will resonate. 

When two males don't back down, only a senior female can break up the fight.

Conflict, in a team environment, is bound to occur. This is just the nature of teamwork. But just like in a work environment, when two people just can't get along, they will require a mediator.

In the case of primates, it's typically a senior female who has the power to break up a fight. Meditation is normally not done by other males, as it may look like they are taking sides, which leads to further upset. It won't be young females, either, because they sometimes are the cause of the rift and may make things worse. During conflict, often, it'll be a senior female who will grab the arm of one male and drag him toward the other in hopes of sparking reconciliation. 

When office conflict arises, know that it's possible some primal dynamics might be at play and choose a mediator wisely to jumpstarting the reunion.

Although there is a world of difference between humans and primates, we are a lot more similar than you'd think. Consider this next time you encounter conflict.

Published on: Dec 6, 2019
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