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Congress: Take a Lesson from Chimps

Our real vulnerability as a nation – selfish, immature leaders – cannot be vanquished by virus testing or a vaccine.

In a time of massive inconvenience and health risk, what we need are leaders who know how to collaborate and compromise.

I write often about this because it’s a big problem.

The most recent Gallup Poll on America’s Most and Least Trusted Professions ranks nurses and doctors at the top of a list of 15 occupations. Members of Congress landed at rock bottom, just underneath car salespeople.

How can members of Congress become more adept at walking the fine line between rigid conviction and abdication? Where can our leaders turn for guidance on how to replace their greed and mistrust with a mindset of strategic compromise?

May I suggest chimpanzees?

Although their DNA most closely matches our own, in one important area the functioning of chimps exceeds ours: They cooperate. Their behavior motto is reflected in the Rolling Stones’ song title, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Among chimpanzees, maintaining cohesive relationships is a necessity for group survival. If you’re a chimpanzee leader, you compromise, or else. If you fail to share food, unfairly redistribute resources, or mess up relationships with other key influencers, the group enacts what the Dutch primatologist, Frans de Waal calls “dethronement.”

To avoid losing status and influence, chimpanzee leaders become more impartial.

“Someone who's big and strong and intimidates and insults everyone is not necessarily an alpha male,” says de Waal, an esteemed chimpanzee researcher. “Alpha males are the ones who mobilize the most support. They don’t support their best buddy. They stop fights, and they come up for the underdog. This makes them extremely popular in the group.”

It’s not only the ape at the top that learns how to compromise. Chimp youngsters are specifically schooled in an early, unwanted experience of negotiation. It’s called weaning.

To gain the mother’s breast, “the youngster will cajole mother with signs of distress, such as pouts and whimpers, and if all else fails, a temper tantrum at the peak of which he may almost choke in his screams, or vomit at her feet.” writes de Waal, in his book, Our Inner Ape.

In the end, there’s a compromise. The infant settles for sucking on the mother’s lower lip, or under her arm. It’s not exactly what the infant wants, but he accepts it because the relationship is more important than winning a tense skirmish.

“Maintaining the all-important tie with mother despite discord lays the groundwork for later conflict resolution,” de Waal notes.

Chimpanzee weaning – like chimpanzee leadership - offers a salient message to a gridlocked Congress and a polarized country: Put relationships before dominance, and the best interests of the group before personal status.

Social living -- and all its important decisions -- naturally produces anger, jealousy, greed, and distress. These emotions are universal, unavoidable, and predictable. But the conflicts that bubble up from intense emotion need not tear us apart.

We can learn to manage the over-reactivity that stimulates destructive conflict. We do this with the tools of emotional maturity: flexibility, adaptability, and shrewdness – the practice of inventing creative alternatives.

As with chimpanzees, the health of our society – and the effectiveness of our political leaders – depends on strategic compromise.

What’s necessary is a mindset shift from “getting everything I want” to “getting some of what I want and giving up something in return.”

Compromise means you give a little to get a little. The goal is to settle for enough but not all of what you believe is important. In exchange, you are willing to cede to the other party some of what is important to them.

Collaborative leadership always involves compromise. It rests on a belief that the relationship is more important than the issue, because if the relationship is lost, all future issues are in peril.

We can be competitive and still have convictions. We can be partisan without being fractured and tribal. Competing at the cost of important relationships exacts a monumental toll on our society. That cost is not only bad decisions and polarized conflict. It’s a waning faith in government leaders – and in ourselves.

The chimps have something to teach us. Can we summon the humility to learn from them?


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