Is your boss a dictator? Are you?

“Dictator” seems the wrong word. It is reserved for harsher milieus than the corporate. Names like Hitler, Stalin and Kim spring to mind. Company executives, at worst, commit “power harassment” — not quite the same thing, we’re inclined to think.

Actually very much the same, says the business magazine President this month. The difference is in degree rather than kind. Power is a drug to the powerful, a scourge to the powerless — more and more so as the gap widens between the two, as it is widening in Japan.

We could, if we chose, learn from the gorilla, writes primatologist Juichi Yamagiwa in President. African gorillas, for all their chest-thumping, are fairly egalitarian by nature — cooperative rather than competitive.

More like us — or are we more like them? — is the Japanese macaque. These northernmost of nonhuman primates, known colloquially as snow monkeys, derive status from lineage, the strong demanding deference, the weak knowing better than to withhold it. The corporate analogy is subordinate deferring to boss. What else can the subordinate do, vis-a-vis him or her whose power to hire, fire and demote is the civilized peacetime equivalent of the power of life and death?

Whether power harassment arises from a hyper-competitive society that needn’t be that way, or from DNA that sets us in our bellicose ways, however gentle our thoughts may be, is a question not easily settled. Certainly DNA is a factor, writes Robert Sutton, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. Too many people, in too many types of societies, harass and suffer harassment for biology not to be instrumental, he claims in his contribution to President’s package. Everyone, as he sees it, is vulnerable — the able jealously persecuted for their ability, the incompetent resentfully for their incompetence. There’s always a reason to pick on somebody, if only the secret, illicit gratification it affords.

“Anyone can become a ruthless dictator” — a disconcerting insight. Stanford University political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita says he was led to it by decades of research on political dictators. What makes them what they are? How do they rule and suppress tens of millions? “It’s no secret, no mystery,” he writes.

Yet it seems mysterious. “No dictator rules alone,” he says. A coterie of loyal thugs kept happy with generous perks provide eager protection. Naturally enough. It’s self-protection. Still, does that suffice to explain the apparent docility of 26 million North Koreans now enduring their third generation of rule by one of the world’s most grotesque tyrannies? Other oppressed peoples have rebelled; are rebelling now, defying overwhelming odds, braving appalling risks, more often failing than succeeding; persevering all the same.

North Korea’s Kim dynasty may be the most successful of modern times, if unchallenged survival is the measure. It is, says Bueno de Mesquita: “The only goal of people wielding dictatorial power is to stay in power.”

Likewise, say he and Sutton, the corporate power elite. Tyrants like the Kims and Iraq’s late President Saddam Hussein simply murder rivals, or lock them up. Tyrannical corporate executives fire them or, failing that, make sure they don’t rise high enough to pose a threat. Loyalty is rewarded and talent punished; loyalists coddled and the able suppressed.

Dictators are as unsavory as the human species gets, but they have one quality the common run of humanity lacks and sometimes needs — iron in the soul. You can’t foster corporate growth without it and you can’t foster human growth with it, if it gets out of hand.

That’s the trouble — it gets out of hand. Wielders of power, national and corporate, often come to view power as an end in itself. That’s power’s narcotic effect, and one needn’t be a born tyrant to succumb to it. One needn’t even be a boss. Sutton offers a homely example. A Stanford colleague, by way of experiment, set students to debating in groups of three, one of the three given the privilege of criticizing the opinions of the other two. Afterward, a plate of five cookies was laid out. In most cases, says Sutton, the privileged student took more than two cookies — not arrogantly, one supposes, merely as a matter of course, unconsciously. Thus does power, once assumed or given, warp the soul of the powerful.

The trouble with us, says Yamagiwa, the primatologist, is that we tend to be either winners or losers; if not the former, the latter. It’s a psychology, or a sociology, or a biology, that stokes aggression — whatever it takes to win and be triumphantly powerful, driving others to lose and be sullenly powerless.

Gorillas “have no concept of winning and losing.” Good for them. Two males threatening each other will invariably draw females and juveniles into the fray as mediators, giving the aggressors a face-saving out. The chest-thumping frequently observed among males is not aggression, Yamagiwa explains, but an invitation to negotiation. This involves sounds and gestures that serve their purpose but keep things simple — unlike words.

Language, Yamagiwa continues, exponentially expands the scope of possible settlements but also the range of differences to settle. In short, it complicates our lives intolerably, though also fruitfully. Words help us anticipate the future and prepare for it; anticipate death and prepare for that too. Here we are, set on the path of civilization and culture and stress and love and hatred beyond anything in the natural world. Learning from gorillas may be possible, as President obliquely suggests, but the odds are against much coming of it — though genetically we and they are tantalizingly close, our genes varying from theirs by, at most, 1.6%.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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