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Prairie chickens and business executives (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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In graduate school, while I monitored electric fish, my friend Henry McDermott watched prairie chickens mate.

Male prairie chickens congregate in an area the size of a suburban lawn called a “lek”. The highest-status male grabs a territory the size of a kitchen table in the middle. The others array themselves outward from there, in larger but more peripheral chunks of turf, doing the prairie chicken dance. Female prairie chickens wander through the lek, most mating with the central male. Success declines with distance from the middle. It’s disco.

Biologists erroneously figured the biggest, meanest male owned the middle. Henry discovered something different: over the years, those males who survive drift to the middle. It’s a seniority system.

In 1980 I stopped torturing fish, entered the business world, and spotted the similarity of prairie chickens and executive succession. Executives achieved power by avoiding decisions and their attendant risks. If they survived they progressed toward the center, though their companies stagnated.

The prairie chicken strategy no longer works very well – it will only get you to middle management, where stress is highest and security nonexistent.

In the 1990s, management power has a stronger tie to creating the company’s success. That doesn’t mean you will thrive by viewing one as the inevitable consequence of the other. Assuming you have a management title, you’re playing the power game every day. You can’t quite the game, any more than you can ignore the laws of thermodynamics. You can, however, decide how you choose to play it.

Machiavelli, the second-most maligned individual in history (the Sheriff of Nottingham was first, as the real Robin Hood was apparently a thug) wrestled with this, the main conundrum of power: can you achieve it and keep it while practicing the morality you preach?

Power has its own logic and morality. A leader who fails to do what’s necessary to maintain power will lose it others. If, at times, this means the execution or exile (or corporate equivalent) of an influential rival, that’s preferable to that rival’s executing or exiling you.

Do you have to sacrifice your principles to rise in your career? Not sacrifice. Rethink. Do you want to accomplish something? You think you can do a better job than those currently in authority? If you can’t gain and hold onto authority you won’t accomplish your goals. It’s a poor code of ethics that celebrates the failure to do good, and yields power to those who want it most.

And if acquiring and maintaining power requires unethical behavior? That’s Machiavelli’s paradox, and it’s intellectually lazy to think you’re somehow more noble by “refusing to play the game”. That’s how power ends up in the hands of those with the fewest scruples.

Am I advocating you start practicing ruthless, backstabbing politics? Not at all. I’m suggesting that if you ignore the realities of power you’ll never understand the behavior of those who embrace them.
Most of us operate under a shared system of mores we’ve all agreed to live within. We assume shared limits to each other’s behavior, experience shock when someone violates those norms, and expects society to impose sanctions to punish that behavior and prevent a recurrence. Charles van Doren calls this a state of law.

Those with both the most and least power live closer to a “state of nature” with fewer societal restraints. Punishment is a natural expression of success or failure in this system, not an expression of societal norms. This is the kind of system that evolves according to more Darwinian rules.

Which is why we can learn a lot from watching animals.


Bibliography: My thinking on this subject has been heavily influenced by two books: Management and Machiavelli, by Anton Jay, and A History of Knowledge by Charles van Doren, which describes the evolution of Western thought and culture.

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