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 / Fourth Quarter 1996 / Issue 5(originally published by Booz & Company)


Why C.E.O.'s Succeed (and Why They Fail): Hunters and Gatherers in the Corporate Life

This is true regardless of the degree of democracy that exists in the company, regardless of an employee's position and regardless of whether he or she or the company's management wants it to be true. Everybody in a company is part of a politically organized community, a polity, and each person's role and behavior in that polity is determined by his or her inherited nature, up- bringing and training. In a company, as in any polity, each person behaves according to his or her rules about behavior in groups. Some of these rules come from up- bringing and training; half of them, according to recent research,(1) are inherited. They come from our ancestors, and to a great degree they are shared among the other members of our species. When we are born we are humans, and we know how to behave with other humans. When we try to succeed in a group, we unconsciously call on those primitive patterns of behavior that have evolved over millions of years of living and working in groups; and the structure of our groups comes from the way we behave together.

Anthropologists study people, their cultures and their polities. They have often studied cultures that have not been exposed to modern ideas, techniques and values. When anthropologists find basic similarities across polities with no historical relationship, they believe that these similarities may come from behavior of biologically similar humans adjusting to the same organizational problems.

We have found patterns in these "primitive," isolated human polities that will help C.E.O.'s understand and solve difficulties in their relationships with their boards and their employees. We found that corporations and their boards have strong parallels in primitive polities, and that boards are organizationally different from the corporations to which they are attached. We learned that the founder who is ruined by his company's success, the captain of industry who cannot run a small company and the seasoned executive who cannot be promoted are all victims of the same simple and ancient effect, and we propose a reason for that effect.

First, let's compare organizations.

There are three primitive organizations that have counterparts in modern companies: the working group, the camp and the hierarchy.

The Working Group

A "working group" is found in all cultures.(2),(3) It is a temporary association of two to six people with useful skills, and it has a specific purpose: to hunt, to lay a section of railroad track, to right an overturned car, to catch a criminal. Working groups are variously called "hunting parties," "task forces," "work parties," "posses," "patrols," names fitting the purpose of the group and the group's societal context. They exist only for the purpose at hand, and they are organized quickly and informally.

When a hierarchical organization like a corporation or an army sets up a working group, a leader is named by the hierarchy ("chairman" or "squad leader"), although the real leader of the group emerges informally. Sometimes the group chooses its own leader by acclamation ("team captain") or by lottery ("straw boss"); usually, the leader arises without any special action as the work progresses, and leadership passes from one person to another smoothly as the nature of the work changes. A working group has a problem to solve, and works democratically, accepting suggestions from any member regardless of his or her status outside the working group. When the problem is solved or abandoned, the group disbands.

The result of the group's work has a strong effect on the mood of its members. If the work is successful, they are elated and often celebrate. If the work is a failure, its members are depressed and uncommunicative for a time. Working parties are short-lived, have only a few members and are re-formed as needed.

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