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The wild empathy of chimp leaders

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

*Focus blogging – Since we all lack time and are overloaded with information, I decided to start "focus blogging". Writing short blog stories that contain one important information, are easy and fast to read.

Let's dive straight into it by starting the first blog with a topic of leadership. Last year was challenging and this one will hopefully be transformative. At individual, business and social level. Not because the astrology said so, but because after every change comes the transformation. It will be more or less fast, more or less spectacular, and it has already started.!

Transformation is an intimate process and, to no surprise, the most important tools lay within us. It is the inner strength we have to lead the change, the vulnerability we have to open and connect, the humility to question ourselves and the intelligence to ask for help.

So the big question is what kind of leaders do we need to be for ourselves and for others during these times?

Since I am a biologist, and not psychotherapist (that's my twin sister by the way), I'll dig into the biology book for an advice.

Frans de Waal in his book The age of Empathy and research on primates gives us one o the most humble insights into leadership. His team observed that in chimpanzees, when reconciliation after a fight is not possible, another chimp will come to consolate the victim of aggression. He or she will do so by grooming, hugging, gentle touching and kissing the stressed individual. This manifestation of kindness and empathy in chimpanzees is not new, but what did came as a surprise is from whom was it coming from.

Alfa males were the ones spending the most time in the field hugging and kissing the stressed and hurt individuals!

Almost six times more than other males and almost two times more than the females. It seems that what makes a good leader in the chimpanzee world is their capacity for empathy and kindness towards the most vulnerable ones. Why? Probably because the well-being of the group depends on the well-being of all the members. Plus, long term bonds formed between individuals guarantee the reciprocity, so when the boss is in trouble, it will have the support of its group members in retourn.

What these though chimps are telling us, is that kindness is strength and empathy is the pillar of a successful community.

A lesson even more important in these transformative times that ask for boldness and demand for failure to succeed!


1. Consolation as possible expression of sympathetic concern among chimpanzees.

T. Romero, M. A. Castellanos, and F. B. M. de Waal

2. The age of Empathy (book), Frans de Waal

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