April 2012: Discerning Baboons Can Teach Leadership LessonsMarch 31, 2012
Robert Sapolsky thinks like a baboon.
No, Dr. Sapolsky is not mentally impaired – he’s a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya. His biggest claim to fame – decades of baboon observations on the savannahs of East Africa – jumps off the pages of his enticingly-titled books, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, The Trouble with Testosterone and Monkeyluv.
Dr. Sapolsky claims that baboons have much in common with humans. And it’s not all flattering.
Like their human cousins, he says, baboons live in large, complex social groups and have lots of time “to devote to being rotten to each other.”
Just like stressed-out people, stressed-out baboons have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and hardened arteries.
They also are led by individuals whose job is to decide how to avoid predators, how to respond to relationship tensions in the troop, and what, when and where to eat.
Discernment and stress
I have been drawn to Dr. Sapolsky’s research for many years, partly because his observations of baboon leaders point to a particular skill that I look for in high-functioning human leaders. I call it discernment, the ability to select the best option from many reasonable possibilities, and to figure out what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
“If you want to be a high-ranking baboon, you want to be able to tell the big things from the little things,” Dr. Sapolsky said in an interview on National Public Radio’s The Diane Reem Show. “This lowers the level of stress hormones.”
Dr. Sapolsky says our bodies’ stress response evolved to help us get out of short-term physical emergencies, like a lion (or a bus) moving quickly in our direction. Those reactions save us in the moment, but are costly to our health in the long run.
Unfortunately, when confronted with more mundane stressors, such as being gossiped about or running late for a meeting, modern humans turn on the same stress response. “If you turn it on for too long,” notes Dr. Sapolsky, “you get sick.”
Real threat vs. imaginary threat
Telling the difference between a real threat and an imaginary or trivial threat requires discernment: How much attention does a business competitor warrant? Is a temporary market downturn a crisis or merely a challenge? How does a leader tell when a poor performer might benefit from better coaching, and when it’s time for that same underperformer to leave?
Discernment is required in situations where there are no clear or easy answers. That fits most leadership decisions, yet discernment is rarely taught or even discussed.
In part, discernment is downplayed because leaders look for quick answers when they’re stressed. But the same fix that calms me down today can ratchet up my stress even more tomorrow, when I discover that the easy solution doesn’t work.
Discernment offers a way out of “the shallows” by helping leaders become examiners instead of reactors. Discerning leaders develop the ability to:
- Distinguish between emotional and thoughtful responses. For example: sensitivity to exclusion is an emotional process. But considering why I might not have been invited requires careful thought. Feeling rejected and thinking through what’s actually going on are two distinct processes.
- Distinguish “real” from “fake” need. Not everyone who cries for help is in need of help, and not all helpfulness is helpful. Being able to tell real responses from fake ones helps leaders conserve energy and develop focus. They waste less time, helping those who actually need help.
- Figure out when to use which tool in the leadership toolbox. For example, decisiveness has its place but there is a time to hang back and not be the decision-maker. Being able to listen grounds all communication, but there’s a time to disclose and self-define. In fact, just like the proverb says, there’s a time for everything. The question is, what time is it now?
Implications for parents
Parents need discernment skills at least as badly as business leaders:
When do you solve a problem for a youngster, and when do you let him figure it out on his own? How do you decide when to shield and when to expose your offspring to the realities of death, poverty, life in the inner city or in an under-developed country? How much should parents be involved in the college choice of their high school graduate?
We often turn to peers or outside “experts” hoping to find answers to our most perplexing questions. While it’s wise to solicit input, those we ask have blind spots, too, and even if they didn’t, what works for them might not work for us.
Like baboons, humans possess discernment-friendly abilities: self-awareness, relationship observation and option-weighing. What isn’t clear is whether a leader’s hectic pace chokes off her ability to decide wisely. Does the considerable time baboons spend lounging and grooming feed their knack for making good decisions?
I believe that human leaders who know how to slow down, relax their bodies and minds, and see with a wider lens gain an advantage in the realm of discernment.
What do you think?
Robert Sapulsky, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” (1994, Holt/Owl 3rd Rep. Ed. 2004)
Robert Sapulsky, A Primate Memoir
On National Public Radio, The Diane Reem Show, April 9, 2001
Biography of Robert Sapolsky, Steven Barclay Agency website