Chimpanzees, bonobos and leadership

Blog No. 8

«Mr. Gandhi: What do you think of Western Civilization?»

«It is a great project … you should pursue it.»

Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Mahatma

Among primates, the closest genus to Homo is Pan. Within the genus Pan, we have chimpanzees (pan troglodytes) and bonobos (pan paniscus). With these species, humans have a 98 to 99% match of our genes. Chimpanzees are much better known than bonobos (and they are often confused) but there are big differences, both physical and social, between them. Chimpanzees organize themselves into patriarchal groups – under an Alpha male -; the bonobos coexist in matriarchal societies -under an Alpha female-; chimpanzees are omnivores and bonobos are primarily frugivores – although they also eat insects -; chimpanzees organize to hunt – even some apes, including chimpanzees from other herds – bonobos are not hostile towards other species and tend to be altruistic, compassionate, empathetic, kind, patient and sensitive. One of the most notable characteristics of bonobos -in addition to being structured in matriarchal systems- is that all conflicts between them are resolved through genital rubs or sexual intercourse. There is almost no violence between them and the tensions are dissipated that way. If the bonobos spoke to us -and had concerns about copyright- perhaps they would be credited with the phrase: «Make love, not war».

«Golda is the best man in my cabinet.»

David Ben Gurion (on his Labor Minister and future Prime Minister, Golda Meir)

We humans have organized ourselves a lot like chimpanzees and almost nothing like bonobos. Even the women who have reached the highest leadership positions, either have had a regent or a favorite who handled the reins of power for them, or have ruled as alpha males, while still being very feminine in the rest of their facets of life. Although it is not certain that Ben Gurion had said that phrase – Golda Meir doubts it in her autobiography – it is symbolic of what women have had to do in the struggle for political equality. The examples of Deborah -the biblical judge-, of Joan of Arc, of Elizabeth I of England – who refused to marry in order not to be subordinate to a man-, and more recently, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi or other prominent women in the modern politics, point out that the women who came to power had to do it under the rules of the alpha-male, that is, using a masculine style of playing politics and governing.

This alpha male style, seeks power without further consideration: «In war and in love, anything goes»; «There is no small enemy»; «The enemy is to be destroyed»; «The first duty of a ruler, is not to be overthrown»; «If my Mama is to cry, let yours to cry instead»; «The State is I»; «After me: the flood»; and other similar phrases that have guided the behavior of these leaders, thus point to a leadership focused on the «I» and almost nothing on the «neighbor», in addition to a very strong tendency to comply with Robert Michels’ Oligarchies’ Iron Law, and other of his maxims.

«The leader will always seek to increase or maintain his power at any cost, even against his old ideals.»

Robert Michels

In the recent global health crisis, there have been countries that have done well, there have being countries more or less well managed, and there are countries that have done badly. It is striking that, despite the fact that only 8% of countries are governed by women, almost all who have done well have a woman in command. Germany, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Taiwan, New Zealand and Norway are governed by women and the novelty is that these women do it under a feminine style of governing. The leaders of these countries are strong, but they are not looking for power but for results, they are looking for ways to optimize resources and time, they act with authenticity and recognition of vulnerabilities, they have resilience, reflexivity, and capacity for containment, they act based on empathy, compassion and altruism, in short, they lead based on the bonobos codes and not on the chimpanzees.

Just as throughout the centuries, various women came to power and exercised it in a masculine style, today they do it – indeed with great success- through a feminine style of governing. I want to emphasize here that male or female styles of governing have nothing to do with sexual orientation, or gestures nor mannerisms, but rather a vision of leadership. This bonobo leadership style can be exercised by both women and men, just as men and women have practiced chimpanzee leadership for so long.

The world that is being reborn is one that needs more bonobo leaders and fewer chimpanzees. Not only for crises like the current one, but for the optimal development of our peoples in the years to come. We need more women and more men who are activated within the feminine style of governing, both in public service and in business and social leadership. We need leaders who think less of the self and more of the neighbor; Who do not cling to power, but are committed to serving others; That it is more important for them to assume responsibilities, than to hold positions or receive honors. We need inclusive leadership where no one is left behind; Who is prudent and creative in managing limited resources to meet unlimited needs; Who is empathetic and caring, forward-looking and resilient and, above all, very human. This characteristic of humanity implies the duty to project the effects of their decisions to the following generations, and to do so in a way that guarantees that we will bequeath to them a better world than the one we received.

«The last will be the first»


Until a couple of months ago many people were invisible. Nurses, garbage collectors, cops, farmers, food handlers, and delivery persons, were all but invisible. Today they are the heroes and heroines that we applaud in the afternoons -with full merit- from our balconies. Just as air is vital and also invisible, these people have shown that they are indispensable to our lives, even if we have not seen them like this until now. We owe a lot to them and we can learn a lot from their self-denial, their detachment and their altruism; Also, how important their work is and has always been.

In these time, when all our prejudices come into question and the values of our civilization have been shaken by events unthinkable just a few months ago, it is good that we undertake that project that Gandhi recommended to us; To leave behind the Culture of Power and build the Civilization of Harmony. To do this, let us make visible what is really vital and to whom we owe it, but also, let’s learn from all who can teach us something important, such as our bonobo relatives from whom we can learn to live in harmony with each other and with Mother Nature.

Milton Cohen-Henríquez Sasso.

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