How did Newt Gingrich climb from lowly congressional backbencher to Speaker of the House in a mere five years? Part of the answer may lie in the work of Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who studies how power is won and lost within a large community of chimpanzees.
Gingrich has been an avid follower of de Waal's work for years. He has even placed de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes on his recommended reading list for freshmen Republicans, along with better-known texts such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.
What secrets of power has Gingrich gleaned from our simian cousins? In short, how to win power by forming tactical coalitions and mounting fierce psychological attacks on those blocking the way. Chimpanzee Politics chronicles a three-month power struggle in which Luit, an ambitious male chimp, waged a carefully crafted campaign to overthrow Yeroen, the autocratic established leader. To pull it off, Luit played the populist by grooming lower-ranking chimps. He also punished Yeroen's supporters and refused to greet Yeroen with the polite submissiveness usually accorded his rank.
It's a strategy Gingrich aped in his assault on former Speaker Jim Wright. For more than a year, Gingrich attacked Wright's ethics while cultivating allies. His campaign gained momentum as the widely disliked Wright began to crumble under pressure. Wright resigned in 1989, and the once obscure Gingrich was established as a major power. "It made Gingrich a big man in Republican politics," says John M. Barry, whose The Ambition and the Power chronicled Gingrich's tactics and Wright's downfall. "Everyone loves a winner, and he [showed] that the way to beat these guys is to just tear them up, rip them up, not be a gentleman anymore." Gingrich declined comment.
While Gingrich has found de Waal's work instructive in the political arena, the scientist's observations may be even more applicable to corporate behavior. "Corporate life is a male hunting venture," notes de Waal. "They hunt for money."
MALE ANIMAL. So what lessons from chimp behavior hold true in corporate life? The CEO shouldn't be too high-handed, for one thing. "Dominant males are always paranoid," de Waal says. But they can't allow themselves to be too aggressive or imperious, because then their lieutenants devote themselves to finding a chance to get rid of them. Loners are always vulnerable, because they have no one to support them in times of crisis. And for indications of who is holding and who is losing influence, watch whose jokes are laughed at and whose ideas get ignored at meetings. The chimp analogue? If low-ranking animals fail to heed the dominant male's displays of hooting and charging, it's a sign he's losing status.
So maybe the law of the jungle isn't such a far cry from contract law after all. "Once you've seen chimps in action and thought about evolutionary psychology, the way you look at workplace life will forever change," notes Robert Wright, a science writer whose recent The Moral Animal dwells at some length on de Waal's work. "Much more than people consciously realize, workplaces are full of subtle jockeying and constant gamesmanship. Any CEO who reads Chimpanzee Politics will never forget it."
The animals of Chimpanzee Politics are back in de Waal's native Netherlands. He now conducts his research at Emory University's Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, a leafy, 117-acre compound that is home to thousands of hooting macaques, rhesus monkeys, bonobos, and chimpanzees. Human contact is kept to a minimum, and no one, not even de Waal, dares to venture among the adult chimps, which are often ferocious and unpredictable. Eschewing the air-conditioned faculty offices on a nearby hill, de Waal works in a hut on stilts that juts over the wall of the chimp compound. Part of the hut's floor and one wall are made of clear plastic, so that de Waal won't miss any of the soap-operatic doings below.
De Waal's current group is led by Jimoh, a smallish male who has a rather tenuous hold on power. Since Socko, an adolescent, will wage his own challenge to Jimoh's leadership in two years or so, Jimoh keeps a close eye on him. But Socko is already busy laying the groundwork for his big campaign. He takes pains to establish his rank above others in the colony, genially plays with the infants, and reinforces his close relationship with Peony, the dominant female. In addition, Socko tests his bravery by trying to mate on the sly--a strict no-no as far as Jimoh is concerned.
But since Jimoh has never had a very strong grip on his role as leader, his subjects exert considerable control over uhat he can get away with.
If he were to mistreat an infant, for example, the outraged masses would quickly move to keep him in check. This "shows a limit to his dominance," explains de Waal. "He's controlled by a coalition from below." Like any leader who's not a despot, "you have to make deals."
ORGAN GRINDER. Since Chimpanzee Politics first appeared several years ago, de Waal has focused his studies on the aftermath of aggression and power struggles. Since no community can exist in a constant state of upheaval, de Waal is intensely interested in how a new leader establishes peace. Doing so is crucial to any leader's remaining in the top spot for long. The most effective peacemaking tactics involve repairing relations with the lowest-ranking members of the group and courting a few strategically placed, higher-ranking individuals as allies.
Gingrich's attention both bemuses and alarms the primatologist. De Waal has never met Gingrich but warns that the lessons of his own work with chimps could lead an overly ambitious person to brash acts. The chimps "can be horrible to each other," de Waal says. "I don't know if I should be flattered or worried" by Gingrich's interest.
He adds that the new Speaker would do well to pay more attention to peacemaking and coalition-building than naked aggression. It's valuable advice, especially considering the fate of Luit, the hero of Chimpanzee Politics. After the book went to press, a restive Yeroen, the deposed leader, hatched a dark plot with a strong young ally. One night, they ambushed Luit, savagely murdering him--ripping off his toes and castrating him. The murder was so rare and gruesome that it still pains de Waal to speak of it.
Gosh, how awful. Does Newt know?
MANAGEMENT SECRETS OF THE CHIMPS
Five tenets of corporate life, according to primatologist Frans de Waal:
-- The top executive is always paranoid--and with good reason.
-- Being too aggressive results in a leader's eventual downfall. Alienated subordinates exploit any opportunity to be rid of the dictator.
-- Loners are by definition powerless, since they lack a coalition to back them in times of crisis.
-- Meetings are a forum for testing the strength of coalitions. Watch whose jokes get laughed at and whose ideas are ignored.
-- After any contretemps, the warring parties need to mend fences to carry on with the business of the day. But the person who initiates the reconciliation is the one who needs it most.