Organizational Leadership and Natural Selection

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Vol. 55, No. 5. September-October 2012 pp. 58-60.

Two recent books challenged my thinking about human nature and organizational leadership: The Social Conquest of Earth by the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Wilson’s controversial thesis is that through natural selection, humans have two genetically determined behavioral drives that sometimes clash—one individualistic and selfish and the other collaborative and altruistic. Jobs described to Isaacson his view of what it takes to fire up the altruistic genes to create a great collaborative team, an idea that challenges popular ideas about leadership. Jobs seems to have developed a management philosophy that synthesizes selfish and altruistic drives, challenging popular ideas about great leadership.

Wilson writes that Charles Darwin anticipated a combination of individual and group selection. For instance, Darwin proposed, an individual motivated by pure self-interest might invent a weapon or other means of attack or defense that would help a tribe to increase in number and supplant other tribes. In such a tribe, there would be a better chance of producing more innovative members. Wilson builds on this, writing:

If we assume that groups are approximately equal to one another in weaponry and other technology, which has been the case for most of the time among primitive societies over hundreds of thousands of years, we can expect that the outcome of between-group competition is determined largely by the details of social behavior within each group in turn. These traits are the size and tightness of the group, and the quality of communication and division of labor among its members. Such traits are heritable to some degree; in other words, variation in them is due in part to differences in genes among the members of the group, hence also among the groups themselves. The genetic fitness of each member, the number of reproducing descendants it leaves, is determined by the cost exacted and benefit gained from its membership in the group. These include the favor or disfavor it earns from other group members on the basis of its behavior. The currency of favor is paid by direct reciprocity and indirect reciprocity, the later in the form of repetition and trust. How well a group performs depends on how well its members work together, regardless of the degree by which each is individually favored or disfavored within the group. (55-56)

The logic of Wilson’s argument, buttressed by his examples of strong collaboration in groups, is that altruistic genes are fired up by threats to a group. Experience confirms this logic. It does not take exceptional leadership to get people to collaborate when they’re threatened. Spontaneous altruistic actions often occur in war and competitive team sports. As Wilson writes, humans are compulsive group-seekers, tribal animals that satisfy this need variously in extended families, organized religion, political groups, ethnic groups, and sports clubs. When people are threatened, their group identities are instinctively strengthened. This is dramatically evident in recent Middle Eastern conflicts where religious group identities are matters of life or death. Similarly, people sometimes identify so strongly with teams in sports that they see opponents as deadly enemies. A game of soccer football even provoked a war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969.

In all likelihood, there is considerable variation among people in the strength of their individualistic and altruistic genes. Some people are more altruistic and helpful than others; some are extremely individualistic. But modern bureaucracies are structured with the assumption that people are most strongly motivated by self-interest. Managers are taught that if organizational roles and processes are designed well, each individual’s output will combine to produce the desired product. When I was a consultant to the executives of a large technology company, a vice president complained that the CEO would listen to the views of the vice presidents but then make decisions by himself. The vice president claimed that if the vice presidents were allowed to participate, they would make better decisions. The CEO rejected the idea, saying he assumed each vice president would promote the interests of his own division and that he was the only executive who could be relied upon to decide what was best for the company as a whole.

Whether or not the CEO was right, the assumption of individual motivation has worked well enough for industrial bureaucracies. But the most creative research technology teams need a high level of collaboration among specialists. Steve Jobs was able to gain that collaboration, first in the team that developed the Macintosh and then with other teams that developed great products. Isaacson writes that Jobs worked hard to foster a culture of collaboration at Apple:

Because he believed Apple’s great advantage was its integration of the whole widget—from design to hardware to software to content—he wanted all departments at the company to work together in parallel. The phrases he used were “deep collaboration” and “concurrent engineering.” Instead of a development process in which a product would be passed sequentially from engineering to design to manufacturing to marketing and distribution, these various departments collaborated simultaneously. “Our method was to develop integrated products, and that meant our process had to be integrated and collaborative,” Jobs said. (362)

Jobs pointed out that Sony had the technical capability to develop an iPod before Apple, but they could not get their departments to collaborate.

How did Jobs do it? He seemed able to fire up the altruistic genes of his subordinates by combining the fear of failure with the promise of greatness. He did not hesitate to fire people who were not collaborative “A players.” He told Isaacson, “The Mac team was an attempt to build a whole team like that, A players. People said they wouldn’t get along, they’d hate working with each other. But I realized that A players like to work with A players, they just didn’t like working with C players“ (363). Jobs didn’t think much of B players either.

Is Jobs’s formula for creating a great team scalable? Other examples suggest that it may be. Craig Venter told me that he was able to recruit a collaborative A team, including Nobel prize–winning scientists, to map the human genome because he offered the researchers the promise of participating in something great. The most successful coaches of professional teams, like Phil Jackson, who won NBA titles at Chicago and Los Angeles, seem to practice this formula. But these leaders are themselves exceptionally gifted. The people they lead believe in them, even identify with them. Freud’s concept of transference seems to kick in; they project onto the leaders magical qualities.

Without these leaders, collaboration may collapse back into individualistic motivation. That is what happened at Ford in the 1990s. Under the leadership of Lou Viraldi, using concurrent engineering, Ford developed the highly successful Taurus. Soon after Viraldi retired, I was teaching managers at Ford and learned that the various departments had gone back to fighting each other. Will collaboration at Apple survive without Jobs to fire the C players and inspire everyone else with visions of creating “insanely great” products?

I believe the answer has to do with whether Jobs really succeeded in creating a collaborative culture. Such organizational cultures can exist without charismatic leaders. A notable example is the Mayo Clinic, whose collaborative culture was designed by its founder, William Mayo. IBM is currently attempting to sustain such a culture. When I consulted for IBM in the 1970s, it had a bureaucratic culture based on individualism and internal competition. Starting when he became CEO in 2002, Sam Palmisano set out to transform IBM”s into a collaborative culture. He did this by developing and implementing a leadership philosophy that first revised IBM”s purpose from selling products to providing solutions. Palmisano then engaged thousands of IBMers in identifying the values essential to achieving the purpose. (1) He made sure different types of leadership qualities and supportive processes were developed throughout the company. The new IBM culture does not depend on a visionary leader’s ability to engage altruistic genes. Rather, like Mayo’s, it succeeds in directing the self-interest gene so that people want to collaborate to achieve a purpose meaningful for both them and their organization. For Mayo, the purpose is using medical skills to improve the lives of patients; for IBM, it is using products and services to solve problems and improve the functioning of businesses and public institutions.

It seems that sustaining a collaborative culture does not depend on either a visionary leader or the self-effacing, driven, level-5 leaders described by Jim Collins in Good to Great (2001). Rather, a collaborative culture appears to depend on everyone in the organization sharing a meaningful purpose and living a philosophy that embodies the practical values essential to achieving it. When the philosophy is lost, the culture regresses into a bureaucracy of individuals competing against each other. This may be what has happened to HP, which had a collaborative culture when it was led by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. In 1972, Hewlett told me that the purpose of HP was to make instruments that helped engineers do their jobs better. The values included collaboration as well as mutual respect, excellence, and innovation. As HP expanded, its purpose became to sell products and make money; the philosophy was forgotten, and the culture disintegrated.

Steve Jobs told Isaacson that his purpose and passion was “to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation” (Isaacson 2011, 567). The challenge for Tim Cook and his colleagues who are now leading Apple is to sustain a collaborative culture that originally depended on the vision and ruthlessness of a great leader. Now, it depends on the ability of the culture and its leaders to attract and retain A players, to practice the philosophy that is Jobs’s legacy, and to develop processes that structure collaboration and support the values that drive it.

The challenge for those of us who have attributed the success or failure of organizations to leaders is to adjust our views and pay more attention to the role of collaboration in groups. Wilson shows us that Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest really meant survival of the most adaptable, and he builds on this to propose that humans were and are more likely to survive in cooperative groups. His thesis seems to fit the experience of Apple and other companies I have worked with or studied. But sustainable collaboration depends on leaders able to engage the altruistic gene with a purpose that inspires people to work together and a culture that reinforces collaboration.


  1. Cleaver, L., and Euchner, J. 2011. Jamming on innovation: An interview with Liam Cleaver. Research-Technology Management 54(6): 12–17.
  2. Collins, J. 2001. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York: HarperBusiness.
  3. Isaacson, W. 2011. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Wilson, E. O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: Liveright.


Liam Cleaver talks about how Palmisano used “Jams” to engage employees across the organization in this process (Cleaver and Euchner 2011).

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