In this talk, author Simon Sinek inspired me to think about inequality in a way I never had. He mentions that group or tribe members don’t take issue with their leaders’ superior compensation and perks when there’s an understanding that it’s the leader’s job to protect the group from external threats. It’s a tit for tat written right into our DNA: you get this extra little something-something, because when we’re in a jam, you’re the one who’s gonna get us out.
My life experience has certainly given testament to this “law” of nature. Employees greatly respect the managers that go to bat for their employees or take responsibility when things go wrong. Folks applaud when these managers are promoted and given the corner office. On the flip side, employees are wary of managers who haven’t demonstrated this quality, and flat out resentful to those who have actively shown that they’ll allow their people to take the fall. When evidently self-serving managers get promoted, people feel disdain.
This was the emotion that fueled resentment towards the financial sector in the early 2010s and inspired Occupy Wall Street. It’s not outrage at wealthy people just because they’re wealthy (though jealousy is undoubtedly part of the equation). It’s outrage at wealthy people who seem to have broken a law of nature. It’s an attempt to shame leaders who betrayed those they were given the responsibility of leading.
It’s not that we want equality of outcome. We do want leaders who get unique compensation and perks. We also want them to hold themselves accountable for the well being of the whole group, because that’s part of the deal.
I’ve written about Sinek’s ideas before, because I’m adamant that they could spark a social science revolution. In Leaders Eat Last, Sinek pleas managers to be the kind of leader that the title suggests. He argues that what the modern workplace is missing are the healthy doses of serotonin our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed when they worked together in teams. Life in corporate America typically offers only two brain chemicals: cheap dopamine thrills when things get done and plenty of stressful cortisol-drunk experiences.
And why shouldn’t brain chemicals and tribe dynamics be the basis of social science? Those are real and relevent to every interaction, transaction, competition, and collaboration. Understanding our ancestors’ environment has refined our understanding of dietary and physical needs. So too could understanding our ancestors’ interpersonal dynamics help us refine our social systems. My guess as to what such social systems would look like? Less bureaucracy, more good leadership; less hierarchies, more teams. More sharing, but not equality of outcome. In a word, proprietism.