Everyone knows that Charles Darwin said life was “the survival of the fittest.” Everyone knows it, but it isn’t true. The Theory of Evolution is based on the observation that those species best adapted to their environment over time (and that means millions of years) will survive. Changes that improve this adaptation remain to be passed on to offspring; those that worsen it are quickly lost.
In business, Mr. Darwin’s earth-shattering theory is reduced nowadays to a platitude about unrestrained competition. The idea the toughest, most ambitious, meanest and most hard-driving people and organizations must invariably come out on top is nonsense. Nothing could be further from Darwin’s theory. “Fittest” for evolution means “fitting best into the circumstances,” not something about being physically fit or mentally tough.
I am a birder. I watch birds. And birds reveal plainly that neither size, nor strength, nor aggression guarantee success. Take the California Condor. It’s one of the largest birds in the world, bigger and more powerful than any eagle, but it only survives because of people’s efforts. It cannot adapt to changes in its environment (caused by people as well) and would be extinct now without artificial breeding programs. Compare this with the House Sparrow, which is small, weak, nonaggressive and exists in billions everywhere you go.
Species success among birds depends mostly on being clever and adaptable, like starlings, crows and the like. Those that need specialized diets and environments, even massive birds of prey, are always vulnerable to extinction. Among individual birds too, success in finding a mate doesn’t depend on size, strength or physical fitness alone.
Take the House Finch (a common US bird). Brighter, redder males are preferred as mates. This is partly an indicator of health, but the red color in fact comes from chemicals in their food. It’s not produced by the bird itself. So being bright red shows you feed well, which likely means you’ll be good at finding food for your mate and offspring. You’re not more aggressive or fitter, just better at feeding yourself.
But there’s a twist. While most male birds are likely to mate with any willing female (promiscuity varies by species), so are most females keen to mate with males other than their partner. DNA studies have shown that many females slip away for a brief fling with some other male, often one younger and less “fit” to father their offspring than their regular mate. The chicks in the nest may well have multiple fathers. So much for the claim that only the genes of the “fittest” males are passed on to the next generation. Competition may be natural, but the basis on which individuals compete is rarely clear-cut. Among people, competition is even more complex. Will the winner be the biggest, the strongest, the most cunning or the most ruthless? Or none of these?
History provides some interesting clues. The Roman Emperor Augustus was neither a successful general nor an imposing figure, yet he created the pattern for his successors for four hundred years. His immediate successor, Tiberius, was both, but a disaster as emperor. Napoleon Bonaparte was neither physically big nor the typical tough-guy. Hitler was a hypochondriac vegetarian and a failure at nearly everything except becoming a mad dictator. Winston Churchill was elderly, fat and a heavy drinker and smoker when he lead Britain through its “darkest hour.” Franklin D. Roosevelt was crippled by polio.
In human affairs, as in many animal and bird species, success is mostly about adaptability, curiosity and brainpower. The ones who succeed in the long term, which is all that counts, aren’t necessarily macho or even specially ruthless. They’re good learners, quick to adapt and able to exploit changing circumstances to their advantage. Hitler and Stalin may have been powerful dictators (for a while), but neither could get past the idea of imposing their will by force alone. The authoritarian systems they created died with them. In evolutionary terms, both were dead-ends.
As I write this, it’s Veterans Day in the US and Armistice Day in Britain. The day we remember those who gave their lives in war to preserve our freedom. Were they all macho tough-guys? No, they were ordinary people willing to make extraordinary efforts when necessity demanded them. Did naked might and ruthless dictatorship win the day? No, they were destroyed.
There are some important lessons there for corporate bosses who take refuge in a flawed understanding of evolution, and run their corporations on the basis of the short-term survival of the most ambitious and macho.
Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at The Coyote Within and Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the fun and satisfaction to management work.
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