Has the Covid crisis benefited “gorilla” leaders?

Feb 10, 2021

8 mins

Has the Covid crisis benefited “gorilla” leaders?
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

It’s official: Donald Trump will not serve a second term as president of the United States. But his defeat is something of an exception in these troubled times. In terms of leadership, it seems that the current crisis has given the “gorillas” an advantage. The stronger you look, the more you punch your chest, the more you have the attributes of a male gorilla, and the more aggressive you are, the more likely you are to grab power.

Could the crisis be amplifying the gorilla phenomenon? Women are already in a small minority in positions of power in politics and business––and all signs point to the fact that they are losing even more ground during the current crisis. The same is true for minorities and those who identify as LGBT+. Racism, homophobia, and sexism appear to be gaining strength since Brexit.

During the pandemic, a lot of media, businesses, and ordinary people seem to want to turn to leaders and experts who reassure them either because they are already in power, because they speak louder and with a deeper voice, or because they portray themselves as experts with the assurance of a dominant voice. Sadly, we are talking mainly about men here.

The health crisis has accentuated the under-representation of women in the media. When the traditional media uses an expert voice, it tends to be male. More than four out of five experts interviewed are men. A recent study looking at experts interviewed on television and in newspaper columns found that just one out of every 20 scientists were women. What is the gorilla phenomenon when it comes to leadership? Why is the current crisis amplifying it? And why is it essential to fight it in your organization? Here are a few thoughts and tips on how to resist the gorillas.

The gorilla phenomenon in leadership: what are we talking about?

We humans have a lot in common with gorillas, the largest of the hominids. At the head of each group of gorillas is a strong, experienced adult silverback male. He regularly puts on a show to demonstrate his strength, beating his chest and using a variety of attitudes and grunts to intimidate the other members of the group, including all potential rivals. Being a silverback requires a level of showmanship!

The power the silverback wields comes with many benefits, including a harem of females that are submissive and fully devoted to him. He has had to fight to become the leader. This is also why his seed is reputed to be so precious: it holds out the promise of transmitting his strength to his offspring. So he is ready to do anything to stay in power. It feels so good to be served and revered by all the other members of the group serving him.

In theory, thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated tools, humans place less and less importance on physical strength, and more and more on intelligence. But in reality, we are not all that different from gorillas and many human groups have troubling similarities with gorilla societies. We like to see demonstrations of strength and expressions of virility from our heads of government and business.

The UK has had two female prime ministers and the US has just elected a female vice president for the first time, but 95% of the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies are male. Consciously or unconsciously, power is still associated with virility.

How the crisis has amplified the power of gorillas and why it must be fought

Over the past 50 years, we have seen a little more diversity of leadership in business, government, and in local communities. Many victories have been achieved in the fight against sexism, racism, and homophobia. Fortunately, leadership is not what it was in the 1950s.

However, with the crisis, there has been an alarming number of setbacks in many areas. In the US and the UK, there has been talk of a “she-cession” during the economic crisis of 2020, meaning that the crisis has hit women hard. Women have been more affected because some sectors that predominantly employ women––such as hospitality, retail and community services––have been hit particularly hard. But it’s also due to the closure of nurseries and schools during the pandemic, which has forced many women to give up their jobs.

Globally, as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, women have experienced 1.8 times more job losses than men have. But it is not only an unemployment issue. In a McKinsey and Lean In survey of female employees in North America, one in four women said they were considering reducing or leaving their paid work because of the pandemic, citing a lack of business flexibility, caregiving responsibilities, and stress. The survey included comparative data that highlighted the gender gap for parents: while 8% of mothers surveyed had considered moving from full-time to part-time work, only 2% of fathers had considered doing so.

All of this echoes French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quote: “Never forget that it will only take a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question. These rights can never be taken for granted. You will have to remain vigilant throughout your life.”

It is not only women who have suffered a loss of power with this crisis. All “non-gorilla” people seem to be in this situation. There have been setbacks in the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace, and racial and ethnic inequality has increased.

In the midst of this storm, faced with a crisis of unprecedented proportions, many choose to turn inward, to be distrustful and xenophobic. Many also fall prey to cognitive bias. Worried and frightened, people are all the more inclined to want to have “strong men” in power. It is as if we collectively submit to the power of the silverback gorillas in the hope that they will be better able to navigate the storm, make the right decisions and provide solutions to the serious problems facing us.

This was particularly evident in the past year with the disproportionate weight given to male experts in the media. A study published by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London shows that women experts represented only one-third of those quoted in articles about the coronavirus. Out of about 250 articles published in the 15 main media in Australia, Britain, and the United States, women accounted for only 5% of the scientists questioned.

So it appears the current crisis has given even more power to the silverback gorillas. However, this crisis also shows that this type of exercise of power is not what we need. The management of the health crisis by the populist “gorillas” in the United States, Brazil, and the United Kingdom is now considered catastrophic. Conversely, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Angela Merkel in Germany have received praise for their able handling of the crisis.

Nevertheless, the “gorilla phenomenon” prevails in most societies. It prevents the many people who do not have the attributes of the dominant silverback from gaining access to power. It affects the very image of leadership. It takes on many forms that affect leadership.

The Perverse effect of overconfidence on leadership

The Dunning-Kruger effect, also known as the “overconfidence effect”, is a cognitive bias that causes the less qualified to overestimate their skills and the more qualified to underestimate them. What does this have to do with gorillas? Well, people who appear to be confident inspire confidence in others and are thus given more power.

But unlike gorillas, self-confidence in humans is often questionable because of this bias. It is not uncommon for people who display high self-confidence to actually be less competent. The human “gorillas” who beat their chests with the assurance of a silverback are not the strongest.

Differences in education and socialization matter. The social background, gender, and culture of the group an individual belongs to affects their level of “overconfidence”. Although this effect is not restricted to males, it is more often a male phenomenon, though this is partly because there is only a tiny statistical sample of powerful women.

The deep voice advantage

We tend to find people with lower voices more “charismatic”. This tends to give a small advantage to males over females. Although the tone and range of voice vary greatly from one individual to another, there is a correlation between testosterone and a deep voice. It is no coincidence that the voice is considered a secondary sexual characteristic. We have been programmed to find people with lower voices more desirable and to want to empower them. Both women and men with higher voices are thus at a disadvantage.

Several recent studies, including one at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have shown that speakers whose voices exhibit a wide range of frequency variations are more likely to be perceived as dominant. According to researcher Rosario Signorello, charismatic voices are composed of two fundamental elements: a biological element and a culture-based one.

The cultural part of vocal charisma can be modified and worked on, which is what some people do with vocal coaches. But the biological component is a source of fundamental inequality.

The physical appearance of the “silverback”

What is true about a voice is also true of physical appearance. Here too, culture has a great influence on the physical criteria associated with power. But there is usually a premium on the physical appearance of power. Many studies have shown that leaders and people in power are on average taller than others. Historically, the men elected to the presidency of the United States are on average much taller than the population as a whole and usually at least 6ft tall.

Height does not play the same role in all cultures. British prime minister Boris Johnson is just about 5ft 9in and the opposition leader Keir Stamer is about an inch shorter, though there have been plenty of tall leaders including David Cameron, Tony Blair, and John Major. The French are an exception in this regard as their presidents have often been shorter than the average French man. The Napoleon complex offers another definition of virility: what you lose in height, you gain in aggressiveness.

Other studies have shown that people are more likely to trust those who are more physically attractive. Although there are cultural differences, physical appearance isn’t neutral and silverbacks have the advantage.

A ‘gorilla’ definition of leadership

Since historically most positions of power have been held by men from the dominant class or ethnic group, our definition of power has naturally been shaped by this. Women and people from dominated groups have historically been so under-represented in leadership positions that there is a singular lack of data on their behavior in these positions.

As a result, there is much debate about what characteristics are associated with effective leadership. Do female leaders need to adopt the so-called “masculine” characteristics to exist? Or is leadership inherently “universal” with anyone being able to fit the mold? Are there differences in nature? Or are the differences explained by differences in social norms and education?

It is sometimes said that women leaders are better equipped for collaboration and teamwork, are less confrontational, or have stronger emotional and cultural intelligence when it comes to solving problems effectively. The problem is that pointing out differences in the “nature” of leadership can lead to a dangerous, and equally sexist, “essentialism”, in other words a belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are.

There is no evidence that women have an inherently different leadership style. On the other hand, it is undeniable that the dominant leadership style, the one that has influenced the way it’s seen and defined, has been shaped by a category of leaders that could be described as silverback “gorillas”, that is to say, men from dominant social groups.

Aggressiveness is far from being an asset when it comes to solving the problems of the health crisis. On the other hand, listening to scientists and the people, being sensitive to the data, and being cautious could pay off. Today, more than ever, there should also be more diversity in the halls of power at the head of companies. Let’s prepare for the next crises that await us by calling the leadership of the gorillas into question.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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