Saturday, 26 November 2011

Intelligence and the Ladder of Authority

Every human being has an innate need to impose his or her will on another human being. This is inextricably linked with the fact that we are mammals; a biological imperative to have a clearly-defined hierarchy is born with all of us.

Whether it is a parent trying to instil values unto the next generation, a boss telling an employee what to do and how to do it, a sergeant-major barking out commands to new recruits or a householder instructing a domestic servant as to what needs doing around the kitchen, there are social hierarchies in which there is an intrinsic expectation of who is to be top dog.

This is the ladder of authority. It is based on age, status, experience, brute physical presence - but increasingly, over the millennia of human evolution - on intelligence. It is most visible among adolescent boys - in the playground, on the pitch, in the classroom (trying not to appear a swot, but to demonstrate effortless cleverness); they are yet too inexperienced to work out ruses how to rule by stealth.

Everyone wants to be boss. Even over their children or spouse. It is difficult for anyone to accept that in a small group, that they are not dominant. They will create excuses, make up stories, role-play - do anything rather than admit a lower standing on the ladder.

There's an official ladder, based on formal hierarchies, family trees or job titles and then there's what's really going on. Here's where the interesting interactions are going on. Peer-to-peer. That lovely line in The Office - Tim to Gareth - "you're not assistant manager. You're assistant to the manager".

We can sniff out weakness in another human, very quickly. We can tell who's really boss. Or so we think. And if that other person thinks that they are the boss - for what ever reason - there's bound to be conflict. Giving in is just not in our nature. Giving in is a sign of submissiveness, what's worse - that the person with whom you are in conflict with is dominant.

This plays out in the international arena, behind closed doors in politics. So many ruses can come into play; Stalin inviting Churchill to dinner at his private dacha after Churchill's first meeting with the General Secretary probably changed the course of post-war Europe by appearing to be placatory and showing his human side - which threw Churchill off guard. How much of what's being determined by Europe's leaders now is not being done on the basis of logic, but on the basis of human personality - dominance and submissiveness? How did Silvio Berlusconi - a farcical figure if looked at through the prism of cold logic - maintain power in Italy for so long?

We all set out wanting to be Top Dog. Even a Pope would not have got to the top without a strong will, a tough personality, determination to push others aside to get to the summit. Then there is that moment... I'll let the immortal Uncle Monty (from Withnail and I) explain:
"It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: I will never play The Dane. When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases."
The theatrical metaphor of playing Hamlet extends to life. I got to play The Dane briefly (two years as general manager of the Polish operation of an international publishing company) but after the stress and pressure decided that I have neither the greed nor lust to dominate others needed to remain a senior executive in a global corporation.

Human life is a game in which a great many of our interactions are a trial of strength between two or more players, striving to be one up on the other(s). "You get the broom." "No, YOU get it!" "Open a Second Front now!" "The British and Americans are not ready yet!"

Once you recognise this, once you have the awareness of what is really going on when you ask someone for something, or they ask something of you, once natural positions are established, conflict can give way to partnership.

Again, I'll offer the most profound piece of advice that I can offer as a result of my 54 years on this earth - get to understand your biology, and rise above it to fulfil your potential.

This time last year:
Edinburgh portraits

This time two years ago:
Kiedy ranne wstają zorze

This time four years ago:
Thoughts on the Nature of Dad Rock

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