Pecking Order and Flight Leadership

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It was recently pointed out to me that humans are weird, compared to other social animals, in that we conflate the pecking order with the group decision-making process.

The pecking order, for instance in birds, is literally the ranking of who gets to eat first when food is scarce.

We can also call it a “dominance hierarchy”, but the words “dominance” and “hierarchy” call up associations with human governance systems like aristocracy and monarchy, where the king or chief is both the decisionmaker for the group and the person entitled to the most abundant resources.

In birds, it’s not like that. Being top chicken doesn’t come with the job of “leading” the other chickens anywhere; it just entitles you to eat better (or have better access to other desirable resources).  In fact, group decisionmaking (like deciding when and where to migrate) does occur in birds, but not necessarily according to the “pecking order”.  Leadership (setting the direction of the group) and dominance (being high in the pecking order) are completely independent in pigeons, for instance.  Pigeons have stable, transitive hierarchies of flight leadership, and they have stable pecking order hierarchies, and these hierarchies do not correlate.

Logically, it isn’t necessary for the individual who decides what others shall do to also be the individual who gets the most goodies.  They can be related — one of the things you can do with the power to give instructions is to instruct others to give you more goodies. But you can, at least with nonhuman animals, separate pecking-order hierarchies from decision-making hierarchies.

You can even set this up as a 2×2:

High rank in pecking order, high decision-making power: Lord

High rank in pecking order, low decision-making power: Eloi

Low rank in pecking order, high decision-making power: Morlock

Low rank in pecking order, low decision-making power: Vassal

“Eloi” and “Morlocks” are, of course, borrowed from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which depicted a human species divided between the privileged, childlike Eloi, and the monstrous underground Morlocks, who farm them for food.  Eloi enjoy but don’t decide; Morlocks decide but don’t enjoy.

The other archetypal example of someone with low rank in the pecking order but high decision-making power is the prophet. Biblical prophets told people what to do — they could even give instructions to the king — but they did not enjoy positions of privilege, palaces, many wives, hereditary lands, or anything like that.  They did sometimes have the power to threaten or punish, which is a sort of “executive” power, but not the power to personally enjoy more resources than others.

In American common parlance, “leadership” or “dominance” generally means both being at the top of a pecking order and being a decision-maker for the group.  My intuition and experience says that if somebody wants to be the decision-maker for the group but doesn’t seem to be conspicuously seeking & enjoying goodies in zero-sum contexts — in other words, if somebody behaves like a Morlock or prophet — they will read as not behaving like a “leader”, and will fail to get a certain kind of emotional trust and buy-in and active participation from others.

My previous post on hierarchy conflated pecking-order hierarchies with decision-making hierarchies. I said that people-telling-others-what-to-do (decision-making hierarchy) “usually goes along with” special privileges or luxuries for the superiors (pecking-order hierarchy.)  But, in fact, they are different things, and the distinction matters.

Most of the practical advantages of hierarchy in organizations come from decision-making hierarchy.  A tree structure, or chain of command, helps get decisions made more efficiently than many-to-many deliberative assemblies.  Many of the inefficiencies of hierarchy in organizations (expensive displays of deference, poor communication across power distance) are more about pecking-order hierarchy.  “So just have decision-making hierarchy without pecking-order hierarchy!” But that’s rule-by-prophets, and in practice people seem to HATE prophets.

The other model for leadership is the “good king”, of the kind that Siderea writes about in this series of posts on Watership Down.  The good king is not just sitting on top of the pecking order enjoying luxury at the expense of his people. He listens to his people and empowers them to do their best; he shares their privations; he is genuinely committed to the common good. But he’s still a king, not a prophet. (In Watership Down, there actually is a prophet — Fiver — and Hazel, the king, is notable for listening to Fiver, while bad leaders ignore their prophets.)

My guess is that the “good king” does sit on top of a pecking-order hierarchy, but a very mild and public-spirited one.  He’s generous, as opposed to greedy; but generosity implies that he could be greedy if he wanted to. He shares credit with others who do good work, instead of hogging all the credit for himself; but being the one to give credit itself makes him seem central and powerful.

A “good king” seems more emotionally sustainable for humans than just having a “prophet”, but it could be that there’s a way to implement pigeon-like parallel hierarchies for resource-enjoyment and decision-making, or other structures I haven’t thought of yet.

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