Monkey Business: Leadership advice from our ancestors

So now it’s the year of the monkey[1]. For some, even more specifically, it’ll very soon be the year of the male fire monkey[2]. Firstly, therefore, happy new year to those who feel that their year is starting now: May it be colourful, melodious, rose-scented, gentle, and infused with a fine taste of ginger and honey. Secondly, then, it seems high time to reflect on the leadership lessons our simian ancestors have been trying to teach us for thousands and thousands of years, while we were too busy to listen, totally absorbed in our own evolutionary journey[3].


Alexandre Gabriel Decamps, The Monkey Painter (1833), Musée du Louvre, Paris; image found here.

By and large, monkeys do not have a strong reputation in our human cultures and civilisations. Everybody knows the three monkeys who don’t see (no evil), hear (no evil), and speak (no evil), by now digitally immortalised as unicode emoticons (sorted under “Nature”, not under “People” – 🙈🙉🙊)[4]. Buddhists know (and aspire to tame) “monkey mind”[5], Christian mythology liked to use monkeys as symbols for sinners and various cardinal sins[6], and the Qu’ran informs us that Allah transformed those whom he cursed and who attracted his anger into monkeys (and pigs)[7]. Modern business gurus tell us to not pick up monkeys[8] or to shut our monkey[9]. “Not my circus, not my monkeys” has become a common way of shifting (unwanted) responsibilities off our shoulders[10], and the relative worthlessness of all human endeavours has been epitomised in the observation that a certain number of monkeys with a certain number of typewriters would at some point randomly (re-) create Shakespeare’s works[11].

Why, then, should we learn from monkeys? And what (if at all) can we learn from them? Our cultural (or personal) reluctance to look at monkeys as sources for learning, I suggest, implies the same kind of psychological hesitation that many of us feel when encouraged to look at earlier versions of our present-day selves: Quite relieved and a little proud that we overcame stages of development that we no longer identify with, we hesitate to accept that some things we did (or: saw, heard, said) back then might still be helpful tools (or: relevant obstacles) for the more advanced selves we’ve moulded ourselves into[12]. As individuals, we throw our former baby selves out with the last drops of amniotic fluid; as human beings, we throw our former simian selves out with the lineage tree. Neither makes sense.

So, as a celebration for the year of the monkey, let’s look at what we can learn from our simian ancestors. In no particular order and with no particular focus, I’ve collected four principles from monkey observations across space and time – may they bring you health, joy, love, and good fortune!

  1. Jump on the bed! Monkeys are patient and not ever worried about engaging in repetitive action, if such is needed. This makes them the ideal candidates not only for typing out Shakespeare’s works[13], but also (alas) for getting recruited for endless experiments to test the ability of human beings to devise clever experiments, and – above all – for jumping on beds, no matter who tells them off, what kind of medical attention is required, and/or where the countdown has landed. They never tire of trying again, typing again, being tested again, jumping again. Be that monkey, perfecting the art of staying with the task you’ve been given.
  2. Swallow the sun! Monkeys can (and do) engage in all kinds of seemingly mischievous activities. Mistaking the sun for a ripe mango and setting out to eat it, snatching personal items from sages engrossed in meditational practice, or cheeringly shape-shifting between cats, mountains, and minute particles could seem like a naughty kid’s pastimes to those who’re affected by what is going on[14]. However, make no mistake: No monkey ever does what they do to tease others. Their do what they do  because they want to do it. Full stop. Be that monkey, perfecting the art of doing what you want to do.
  3. Uncork the bottle! Monkeys are masters of copying others and anticipating their needs and wants: From properly greeting others to spitting, smoking, uncorking and drinking from bottles according to local customs, all the way to learning how to learn from as many teachers as possible – doing whatever they’re doing with the sole aim of assimilating themselves to the world that others believe they live in, thereby confirming and strengthening those world views (while, at the same time, creating a subtle feeling of uneasiness)[15]. Be that monkey, perfecting the art of serving human beings.
  4. Jumble your neck of the woods! Monkeys are avid (and chaotic) learners – and whatever they’re searching for or trying to understand, they always expect that there will be a different (and better) solution than what they thought was best just a moment ago. From fishing in rivers to felling trees, from inviting relatives to selling milk, from making public laws to seeing through children’s games – no monkey will ever rest until the apparent truth has been shattered in favour of better and bigger insights[16]. Be that monkey, perfecting the art of continuously deconstructing your most cherished neck of the woods.

And two final words of caution: When the first rain falls, the monkey will a coat, maybe made of straw. And, in any case and whatever you do, don’t ever shock the monkey[17].

[1] If you want to learn more about Chinese New Year, you can inform yourself quite extensively in the corresponding article on Wikipedia [retrieved Feb 8, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] The article on Losar in the same place is not quite as extensive, but you can use it as a starter – it has links to other places, too [retrieved Feb 8, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[3] Disclaimer: I am not, was not, and will never be a biologist. I know nothing about simians from a scientific point of view. Don’t quote me on anything I’m writing here. It’s all made up with no reliable fact base behind whatsoever. BACK TO TEXT

[4] For an in-depth study of how the symbolism of three monkeys changed across cultures and times, see Wolfgang Mieder, „Nichts sehen, nichts hören, nichts sagen“. Die drei weisen Affen in Kunst, Literatur, Medien und Karikaturen (2005) . BACK TO TEXT

[5] Again, the corresponding article on Wikipedia is not a bad starting point to read about this; to get a more specific description of how monkey mind comes about and relates to its surroundings, (re-) read the timeless chapter on “The Development of Ego” in Chögym Trungpa’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” (1973). BACK TO TEXT

[6] See the article “Affe” in “Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie” (1968 sqq.) as well as the highly insightful and entertaining article “Der Affe und die Magie in der Historia von D. Johann Fausten” by Hartmut Böhme in: “Thomas Mann. Dr. Faustus”, ed. Werner Röcke (2004), p. 109-143.BACK TO TEXT

[7] In verse 5:60 – various different translations can be found here [retrieved Feb 8, 2016]. – For the sake of approaching completeness: Hinduism seems to have a different attitude towards monkeys – at least, they have the monkey god Hanuman who’s quite a multi-faceted character [retrieved Feb 8, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[8] In one of Harvard Business Review’s two most reprinted articles of all times by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass, “Management Time: Who’s got the Monkey?” (1974, reprinted here [retrieved Feb 8, 2016]). As an aside: I once attended a leadership training where every participant was given a cuddly monkey with a shirt saying: “Don’t take all the monkeys”.BACK TO TEXT

[9] “Shut your monkey: How to control your inner critique and unleash your creativity” is the promising title of a book by Danny Gregory, announced for March 2016. I know nothing about the merits of this book, but I like a lot of the stuff on his website.BACK TO TEXT

[10] Internet wisdom (various sources searched on Feb 8, 2016) tells me that this is originally a Polish proverb, but I couldn’t find a satisfying final proof for this (nor a proper history of the proverb).BACK TO TEXT

[11] Read this article (Wikipedia again, apologies…) for background on the “Infinite Monkey Theorem”, corresponding literate, and related experiments [retrieved Feb 8, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[12] My current favourite reading on how to identify, deal with, and (if necessary) get rid of the emotional truths we inherited from our former selves is Bruce Ecker/Laurel Hulley, “Depth-Oriented Brief Therapy” (1996).BACK TO TEXT

[13] See above, note [11] .BACK TO TEXT

[14] Read Hanuman’s life story for further information (see above, note [7]).BACK TO TEXT

[15] By far the best – first hand (!) – description of this attitude can be found in Franz Kafka’s “Ein Bericht für eine Akademie” (1917). As an accompanying read, I recommend Erich Kästner’s poem “Die Entwicklung der Menschheit” (1932) .BACK TO TEXT

[16] An imaginative illustration of this characteristic can be found in the German children’s song “Die Affen rasen durch den Wald”. The one and only version of this song that you should ever listen to is the one by the Hamburg jazz quintet “The Lampshades” (available on their CD “Rauptier”).BACK TO TEXT

[17] If in doubt, you can watch consequences here [retrieved Feb 8, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

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