Have you ever had a good boss? How about a bad one? If you’re like most people you probably had both, and you’ve wondered how did the bad one get promoted into a leadership role in the first place? Today I’m going to explain to you exactly how that happens. You’ll be surprised to learn that the boss you thought was a jerk probably didn’t start out that way. If you’re a leader yourself or aspire to be one you must read this post!

We think of nature is ultra-competitive dog-eat-dog, fierce struggles for survival and dominance. And for sure there’s an element of truth to that. However this view of nature, and the evolution of the species is more an exception than the rule. Darwin who is universally associated with this hyper-competitive perspective on survival of the fittest, mostly observed the opposite. He keenly found consistently that the level of symbiosis and cooperation was on the whole the true character of successful species survival. Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish fast and rear the greatest number of offspring. Humans in fact demonstrate this necessity for cooperative and symbiotic relationships more than most species. Like other tribal primates we live in communities that prosper when we work in the mutual interests of one another. Now I love the work of positive psychologists Dacher Keltner, who leads the greater good science center in California.

His research shows some amazing insights not only into our cooperative nature but also into how leaders come to be. Amongst our closest relatives, the dominant primate in any gorilla or chimpanzee or bonobo group- the one that leads the pack has some power and dominance; in order to win access to that leadership role and also to reproducing with many females. But researchers have found that in order to rise to the top position and in order to maintain it this leader must serve the troop. These dominant Apes are known for mentoring their young, both male and female. They lead the troop to find food and appropriate shelter. They’re responsible for resolving squabbles amongst other members of the troop. Frequently, they carry and tend to the needs of the infants. Now a leading ape will not lead for long if he cannot adequately demonstrate a quality of care and concern for the entire troop. His attention to the well-being of the tribe is a constant consideration of the rest of the tribe.

So what about humans? Is it power-hungry domineering self-serving jerks that we assign to leadership roles? No! Like other apes we consistently see that people who exhibit the most pro-social behaviors are given deference by other members of groups. Captains on baseball teams, committee chairs on community groups or supervisors in the mailroom. Collectively we follow people who demonstrate that they care about the group. We’ve picked people to lead us who sacrifice personal gain to help others Dr. Keltner says this: “When you closely observe chimpanzees or other primates” (such as kindergartners or university students) “You’ll find it’s not the bullies and manipulators who gain power rather it’s those who demonstrate empathy and enthusiasm.” They solve other’s problems and otherwise further the greater good. So what’s the catch, why do so many people who rise to leadership positions turn out to be toxically self-serving? Well the research is clear on this point too. Power really does corrupt! At least a lot of the time it does.

Selflessness gets people into positions of power, but once in power many leaders become increasingly selfish. They care less about the group and instead consciously or unconsciously begin to focus more and more on their personal advantage that they can reap from their hold on power. Established leaders act more impulsively and become less empathetic. Leaders frankly become self-absorbed. In natural systems like a troop of chimpanzees for example, this problem self-corrects. Once benevolent leader becomes self-serving and the other Apes see this, they start to withdraw their support. Soon another chimpanzee we’ll begin to demonstrate high levels of concern for other members of the troop and will feel the increasing social support and deference. And guess what, that chimpanzee will be supported to challenge the alpha male and often enough a new leader is installed. Sometimes this transition of power is messy, but just as often the reigning leader recognizes his loss of support and with modest conflict relinquishes authority. In humans we sometimes see this, but too often our bureaucratic institutions with complicated hierarchies of power do not readily manage leaders who have grown selfish, arrogant and domineering.

There is massive economic and social well-being that becomes sacrificed because of the retention of poor leaders. Morale goes down, as does productivity. Sick leave goes up, creativity plummets and entire organizations begin to suffer. So what do we do about it? In this short post I can’t give a comprehensive solution but I can offer a tip for leaders and aspiring leaders. constantly check your motives with the actions you’re taking. Who is most being served? If you suspect it might be you, take a step back and see if there’s something you can do differently to better serve others. If you’re itching to learn more check out the link below. It contains an excellent, relatively brief academic article on the qualities of a caring servant leader by Larry Spears who is a true expert in the area of servant leadership.

It is my life’s mission to help the world be a bit happier. Please share this post and you’ll make the world happier too.
Thanks so much.

I’m Paul Krismer your happiness expert- and we’ll see you next time.