Why “Bonobo Cultures” won’t survive


Didier Marlier

February 11, 2018

From Disruption to Engagement

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Recently, I was puzzled by an article claiming that Duke University researchers, Christopher Krupenye and Brian Hare had found that Bonobos (a type of monkey frequently studied for their social behaviours thought comparable to those of humans) “preferred Tyrants”. Although not qualified to judge, I was quite skeptical about their experimentations and remain unconvinced that what they measured (which piece of apple in front of a picture of someone they just saw practice bad or good behaviours) truly represented what they claim to measure. But for the sake of the argument, let us suppose they are right: Kupenye and Hare claim that Bonobos are more attracted by dominant personalities than consensual ones. Furthermore, they seem to favour those displaying aggressive and antisocial behaviours over those who come and support them.

The fact that Bonobos prefer “bad boys” rather than civilized one concerned me. If Bonobos praise brutal, violent and constraining individuals and leave aside the more sociable, engaging and community building ones, could it mean that human beings also prefer to be led by such characters and that all the work being done to educate leaders to become more engaging is against nature and counterproductive? The recent democratic choices made by respectable citizens in supposedly democratic countries seemed to support that possibility. The successes and sometimes worship of business leaders not know for their democratic style, such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Steve Ballmer for example seems like another evidence.

Bisons in the Americas are also known for handing their destiny over to literally heard headed Buffalos: At Spring time, the wannabe leaders defy each other in the plains and headbutt competition until the strongest one has defeated its rivals. The herd then submits and follows the leader until the following Spring. Another evidence that brutal might is favoured by the masses rather than more consensual approaches…

Now is it truly so? Yes, when looking at Mankind History, violent leaders often created either a terrified or sometimes fanatic followership. Their early successes would contribute to win them an even largest circle of devotees. Bad being far easier than Good (see our post https://enablersnetwork.com/2017/what-makes-populist-leaders-successful/) they will soon have wiped out any opposition and reign as dictators.

But how do dictators rate at creating collective intelligence? How will they lead their organizations through the complexity of the “Disruption Economy”? There is one fundamental and historical shift taking place in the History of Humanity: The pyramidal model, where only a few needed to think and know and the rest were expected to execute, has become obsolete. Creating an intelligent and aligned organization becomes the new norm.

In their visionary book of 1994, “Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead”, Belasco & Stayer use the metaphor of the Buffalos, mentioned above. The native Americans had understood the devotee dependency created by the herd towards their leader. So it sufficed to send a few braves provoke the lead buffalo on their horses. The furious dictator would charge, chasing the braves who were heading towards a cliff. At the last minutes, the warriors would avoid the fatal jump but the heavy and infuriated lead-bison wouldn’t and jumped in the void, conscientiously followed by his worshipers… it rained buffalos on the tribe gathered at the feet of the hill ready to prepare their Winter provisions. Imagine that exactly the same happens to organizations…

Using fear, coercion, intimidation, Power Distance to create a blind obedience from our teams will not get us far in the Future. When more than 40 Disruptive Technologies are at the disposal, sometimes for free, of everyone in any part of the World, when speed of adoption (but also the rapidity with which fads disappear) is growing exponentially, relying just on a few leaders will not be enough to ensure success. Disruptive organizations are:

  • Intelligent: Their people are encouraged to think, create, innovate and challenge orthodoxies. Rather than being pyramidal, intelligence is widely spread among the organization, ensuring faster actions and reactions as well as permanent creativity. In a “Bonobo System”, it is enough if the boss is intelligent. He/she will tell us what to do!
  • Psychologically Safe: That is another obvious difference with “Bonobo organizations”. In Disruptive Organizations, it is the fear and not the people that are killed. Google now well know “Aristotles Project” showed that their most successful teams were those that were fearless. Fear (for my survival/job, for my territory/pride & status, for my habits) literally switches off our “intelligent brain” (Neo Cortex) and makes us uncapable of being rational, creative or to take measured risks.
  • Led by exemplary leaders: I respect and admire the leaders we work for. Leadership is an art and an act of courage for me. So all of you deserve praise. And among us all, courageous leaders, some are simply exceptional. I keep on wondering: Why does he/she work with me as leadership seems so natural to them?” What makes them different? The mail I wrote last night in support to one of them going through challenging times, hopefully lifts a veil: “Keep your convictions, your strength of character, your pride which makes us move mountains, remain humbly keen to learn, curious and intelligent (in the Latin sense, i.e. the one who creates connections), and continue to progress in your empathy, determination and… with your smile”. Those leaders create the High Challenge/High Support environment which create Disruptive Organizations.

Bonobo primitive cult or disruptive XXIst century culture? Which one do we create around us? Which one would you prefer to live in? Which one will make you blossom?

Leaders have the followers (and culture) they deserve. And followers, in return, have the leaders they deserve as well.


  1. Eduardo Rocha


    Great post as always.

    I believe leaders like Musk or Jobs are praised because they are visionaries. But they are praised despite their leadership styles, and they will live with this huge “but”, even if they are the richest men on Earth like Bezos.

    For me, this is where diversity comes in.

    And democracy, for politicians. It can be hard (a brazilian like me can tell), but to accept someone we don´t like sitting at the presidential chair and discussing their acts is where democracy finds its power.


    • Didier Marlier

      Obrigado Eduardo for taking the time to comment. I like the analogy with politics as well. Have a good week end


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