Orangutan Leadership

In the wild, and particularly in captivity, orangutans pursue the coveted power position of “alpha” by asserting their dominance and demonstrating their power by doing three things.

First, they fist their hands and pound their chests for extended periods of time.  It’s been said this causes them great harm, but their desire to be alpha overrides their sensory for pain. Next they screech and grunt until the oxygen to their brain is restricted and they become delusional.  Finally, they excrete enormous amounts of poop and toss it at the other apes.

This is how the alpha male is decided – irrational injury to self; delusion grunting; and loads of dung throwing…

In the world of apes, the alpha is the position of power and strength, but is not to be mistaken as leader.  He is not designed to lead. The alpha’s job is to protect territory and fight or frighten off invaders.

With the alpha in place, the apes co-exist in a state of harmony; and that balance is found in the natural order of things.  The apes seem to live in the law of abundance because the troop works together to find and harvest food.  They instinctively know where to find it and never take more than they need. Nor do they hoard more territory than their troop can harvest.

They live like families. They pick off each other’s irritants (bugs); play and laugh; tackle each other; and communicate dislike of certain behaviors.  They treat “extended family” with a sense of courtesy, too.  The apes in the troop create pathways to the food source knowing these pathways will be used by other apes dwelling in the territory of another alpha.

Orangutans are the first non-human species documented to use ‘calculated reciprocity’ which involves weighing the costs and benefits of gift exchanges and keeping track of these over time.

It’s not a stretch to recognize their similarities to man. In fact, the word “orangutan” comes from the Malay words “orang” (man) and “(h)utan” (forest); hence, “man of the forest”.

Perhaps important lessons of life (and business) can be learned from our counterparts in the jungle:

  • harvest only what your troop needs
  • don’t claim territories that aren’t yours
  • treat others with courtesy and help them remove their bugs
  • create shared pathways
  • don’t confuse delusional, dung-slinging alpha behavior as leadership; power is not leadership
  • learn to live in harmony with other apes

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