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Monkey Business

By Martin Marshall, on 26 November 2014

Professor Martin Marshall

Professor Martin Marshall

Lead, Improvement Science London

I recently listened to a fascinating presentation at the annual conference of the Dutch Royal College of General Practitioners. The speaker was the curator of Amsterdam Zoo and an expert in chimpanzee behaviour. She’s spent most of her career observing troops of chimps and has become fascinated by their leadership behaviours. She is convinced that doctors have much to learn from their primate cousins and with respect to my profession, I’m inclined to agree.

It appears that all chimpanzee troops have a strong leader (a male I’m afraid, but read on) and this individual competes with others to remain top dog, if you don’t mind me mixing my species. They achieve this by creating alliances with others in the troop, constantly nurturing their social networks. They put a lot of time into building relationships with influential females, who then act as the emotional intelligence behind the throne, forging partnerships and heading off trouble.

The leader has occasionally to fight with other ambitious males to maintain their supremacy but as soon Chimpanzeeas they have won the fight they immediately seek reconciliation with the vanquished, and in doing so avoid repeated attacks. Leaders that fail to be conciliatory rapidly lose their dominant position. Young chimpanzees copy the leadership behaviours of their elders, preparing for the future, but they are careful never to be seen as a threat.

What do you think? Perhaps one or two lessons for NHS leaders? (avoiding the gender stereotypes, of course). Most chimpanzee groups maintain an effective and happy equilibrium most of the time. Now, there’s something for us all to aspire to.