Big Think Interview With Paul Lawrence

A conversation with the Harvard Business School professor.
  • Transcript


Question: What is Renewed Darwinian theory?

Paul Lawrence: Well, this addresses questions that have been on the minds of humans since we have had history.  It is: "What are the fundamental roots of our behavior as human beings?  What makes us tick?" is one way to put it.  And I was lucky enough to discover that Darwin built quite a good deal about human behavior at this level of basics that has been amazingly ignored by the academics. And they focused entirely on his first book, which was "The Origin of Species" and ignored his book that I have been looking called, "The Descent of Man."

So I was very fortunate to be able to draw on his insights as well as current findings from neuroscience and how the brain works to build what is a pretty fresh theory of human behavior which I feel is necessary to underlie and pin up and base... build a better theory of leadership upon it. 

What I’ve come up with is what I call the "Renewed Darwinian" [theory] because it is a renewed version of Darwin.  It doesn’t have much to do with the common version in the public that Darwin is all about the survival of the meanest and the fittest... and the most ruthless to survive is the way it works.  And they all use that way of thinking when they talk about living in a Darwinian world, as you will notice in print. 

Anyway, I came up with the idea that we have other drives than simply a drive to gain resources, to acquire to look after our narrow self-interests.  And that is the insight that has allowed me to say: "Well, what else?"  So I argue that we all humans are born with four basic drives, ultimate motives, which we have because they were essential for our basic survival.  These aren’t just icing on the cake, these are four drives that we have proven over the eons are necessary for our species to thrive as a whole species and they are encoded in our DNA and we sense them and feel them mostly by the emotional messages we get from our subconscious as we witness the world around us. 

Question: What are these four drives?

Paul Lawrence: The first is the drive to acquire, to possess, to own things that are necessary, resources for our very survival and things that go even beyond survival, to enhance our status as individuals.  The second is a drive to defend our resources, to protect them from hazards, not only... obviously we are protecting our body, but also our possessions, our loved ones, even our beliefs when they are under attack.  The third is the drive to bond in long term, caring, mutual-caring relationships with other humans—this is essential to our survival as acquiring food to eat.  And the fourth is the drive to "comprehend," to understand, to create, to make sense out of the world and to be able to build the, kind of knowledge that allows us to cope with out everyday life.

Question: How do these drives shape behavior?

Paul Lawrence: So think of any individual.  We go through the day looking around us, seeing what’s going on, and really thinking what does this mean to me?  How am I going to react to this situation?  Should I run away, go forward, embrace it, think it’s terrible?  We have to evaluate, we have to have criteria to judge what these events around us mean to ourselves in order to figure out how to respond.  And that’s what our brain does for us.  And if we can learn how to lead, to behave in ways that do justice for all four of these basic drives, we turn out to be what people consider a content, happy, satisfied, successful person who feels their life had had meaning.  And we can’t do it if we only pay attention just to the drive to acquire. 

If I’d see a beautiful meal but I’m going to have to knock down this nice lady in front of me to get to the meal, well, how do I do it?  One, it would be nice to have, and the other is I don’t really see myself as banging people over the head in order to get what I want.  So how can I find some what to do justice to both my desire to have a good meal and have a friendly relationship with this person that’s in the way. 

Question: Where does conscience fit into Renewed Darwinian theory?

Paul Lawrence: Well, one of the biggest insights, I think probably the biggest insight I got from studying Darwin in his second, neglected book, was what he had to say about conscience.  Let me just quote a couple of sentences directly from Darwin’s book that really staggered me with their profound implications. 

He said that: "Any creature, whatsoever, that has the social instincts comparable to those of humans and the intellectual capacities close to those of humans would inevitably develop a moral sense of conscience."

Now, what he’s saying here is that if humans—any creature—had the drive to bond, a social instinct, and a drive to intellectual drives like comprehend, would have the conscience to help them fulfill those two drives because without conscience you could not fulfill those two drives.  And what does he mean by conscience?  Let’s think of it in four-drive terms.  We’ve all heard of the "Golden Rule": Do unto other as you would have... you would do unto them.  But, we don’t quite sure what that means.  But with four drives, we could say, I’ve got the four drives in my brain and that tells me what I’m driving for, my motives. But the other person I’m talking has the same ones.  And if I deal with them, if I want to be a trusted friend who had worked with closely and engaged with in a truthful way, I’ve got to help them fulfill their four drives and then we can bond, really. 

So it’s a way to bond.  And what you have to do is practice things that we all do.  You know, help them to acquire, well help them develop their competencies to be productive.  Help them develop their competencies. 

The drive to bond; well, you have to treat them honestly, and not lie to them, and keep your promises, and not break your promises.  The drive to comprehend; again, you have to tell them the truth and not falsehoods, not mislead them with bad information.  Drive to defend; well going... when the going gets tough you are there to back them up.  You are there to help them defend their properties and their own body.  Those are the obvious ways you have to do if you want to have strong long-term relationships and they fall correctly out of the theory of human behavior. And they also provide you with a way to how you should act as a leader if you want to build the kind of bonds that will... that people will turn to you for your leadership help because you are helping them acquire and develop those basic drives of themselves. 

So it ties together the theory of behavior and the theory of leadership around practicing the conscientious way of dealing with other people according to some obvious rules that any one of us can deduce from Darwin’s statements.  And that’s a bridge to leadership.  And what we’re talking about now is good leadership, which I equate in this book with moral leadership.  Good, moral leadership is what good leadership is.  And it’s distinct from bad leadership practiced by people... most of all people without a conscience who simply do not have any fellow feeling.  They do not know what compassion is, they do not know what empathy is, they do not know even what love is.  That is something they are never going to experience in their life because they don’t have that feature in their brain when they are born.

Question: Are leaders born or made?

We all have the potential to be leaders because we have these brains that judge situations in terms of these four basic criteria and try to figure out how do we respond to fulfill those drives for ourselves.  And if we’re successful in doing that, people will begin to pay attention to us and say, “Well, this person seems to know where they are going, they seem to be coping very well in the world, I guess we ought to pay attention and maybe follow their example and they could lead us into the future in a more successful way.  So, leadership grows out of one's own success in leading one's own life.  And through that process we gain influence over other people as they follow the leader.  And so you can see what a tight relationship there is between this sort of human behavior and the process of leading one's self and others. 

I think that another way to think about leadership is that, of course, you’re born with it, you have that kind of a brain, but the leadership potential in all of us is never going to really show itself unless we refine it, practice it, and train our minds to think this way and then we can be much more effective in leading ourselves and leading others. And we have to acquire that skill through training and through experience, through doing it.  Through doing the job and proving that we can come up with four-drive solutions to four-drive problems, is one way to put it. And we have to find those solutions and lead others to follow them and that will... and what we’re doing there is not only fulfilling our own drives, we’re helping them fulfill their drives and that is what attaches them to us as useful followers. 

Question: What can Renewed Darwinian Theory teach business leaders?

Paul Lawrence: Well what they can learn is that we can be much more specific than we have in the past about telling them what we mean by a leadership brain.  They can learn how their own brain is actually constructed to help them be good leaders.  We evolved to have such a brain, we have evolved to observe the world around us in terms of whether it is a help or a hindrance to our need for these four drives.  And we can sense those things in ourselves and we can say, by practicing the skills of thinking of such complex situations of that kind, we can improve our own leadership capacity.

Let me give you one kind of an example.  One thing that the world faces these days is a lot of organizations that are loaded with distrust.  Distrust is a very costly characteristic to have in organizations and business leaders and managers are often confused that they have unfortunately a lot more distrust in their organization than they wish they had.  People do not trust enough in each other to engage in some kind of deal or transaction.  They think they are going to be undercut some way. And this is very expensive if you’ve got to have six lawyers to make an everyday agreement between two people in how they are going to work with each other, you’re going to pay an awful lot of lawyer’s bills. 

Well, this certainly can help you build a structure of trust throughout your organization which will enable people to cooperate much more readily with each other without having to build up defensive systems just in case the other guy double-crosses them, which is in the back of minds when they have distrust.  And it teaches us... can teach us how on a step-by-step basis, just in everyday conversations, we can notice when we or the other person does a below-the-belt comment. You know, sort of throws out a half-truth or throws out a put down or a way of diminishing the other that the other feels they’ve got to get back at them and begin a game of tit-for-tat and see who can kind of undermine the other’s position.  And stop such conversations; call them out for what they are.  These are busting trust is what they are, they’re trust busters, and engage in the kind of dialogue that builds trust, where we listen carefully to other’s ideas and give due credit to it and tell each other truths instead of falsehoods.  And see how we can build a larger accomplishment by that quality of cooperation based on trust and build up the habits of trusting each other so it means you can take it for granted that you can have... you’re working in an organization that it has a structure of trust.  That’s a very specific skill that we can help people acquire really by engaging in the kind of moral rules that fall out of examining what’s behind the four drives and the leadership behavior involved. 

Question: Are leaders more likely to be sociopaths?

Paul Lawrence: Well the question becomes you know, do these people without conscience, let’s call them PWOC’s is a rather shorthand way for that.  Talking about them getting into leadership positions and they probably get into them out of all proportion to a percentage often population, we estimate they maybe 2% to 4% of the population are such people.  And we think they get into the leadership positions maybe 8% or 10% of the time, but you know, any percent is a mess because they can wreak havoc in exploiting other people.  They probably get there more than others because it’s the only thing they’re looking for in life. You know we got normal people have got a lot of things they’re trying to get in life.  They’re trying to have healthy families and good relationships with friends and so forth.  And if you’re aren’t paying any attention to that, you can probably get to a power position more readily, because you can be pretty cunning and pretty smart, and a lot of them are very charming.  You know, they don’t come across, a lot of them, as evil, they come across as very charming people and they can worm their way into those spots and we have to be cautious.

A lot of history records the fact that such people have gotten into important positions.  The whole Dark Ages was a period in which those people got into leadership positions in governments on a large-scale basis and there was a tremendous amount of warfare and suffering during those times.  I think the whole Renaissance has been an effort to move away from that kind of leadership.  I think the effort to put together the Constitution of the United States, which I discuss at some length in the book, was a effort to create a government that can protect itself against such kind of leadership. Making it... by balancing the power and not getting power concentrated in any one office is a way of avoiding that kind of leadership. 

So it’s come up throughout history and that is thoroughly discussed and we see it not only, obviously, in business, we can name and do name prominent leaders in business who are highly suspect of having that feature.

But the point is, they do get into some of those roles and... For instance, take the scandal in Wall Street with the crash in the market and the resulting worldwide depression.  I discussed that in a chapter which I come out with a fairly bold statement which is still not the way in which the government is defining what happened.  There were a few, there didn’t have to be many, and they didn’t necessarily didn’t have to be all CEOs of the big banks who saw the opportunity to buy up subprime mortgages—which were really written without much interest in whether they recipient could repay them and so were subject to a lot of foreclosures—but the banks that wrote them knew they could instantly sell them to the Wall Street banks because they were collecting these mortgages wholesale so they could slice and dice them up into a sort of a mysterious packages and sell them as Triple-A bonds certified by the grading agencies, and collect 100% on the dollar for those bonds to people who were trustees of pension funds and endowments, and we sitting in responsibility to make those investments in bonds, by law they had to do it so those bonds looked pretty good to them.  They didn’t realize that the bonds were probably... they were phony.  They were really worth maybe only 50% of their face value at the moment they bought them.   And that was the con, the absolute fraud that was pulled off.  And we still don’t have a clear understanding by the public or even by the Department of Justice that that is what happened, and we should be prosecuting those people and getting the evidence out that will prove that those are criminal actions. 

Question: What would we do if genetics could pinpoint someone as a psychopath?

Paul Lawrence:  Well, obviously, that’s an extremely difficult question.  It’s going to raise a lot of moral questions.  What do we do with people that are positively identified by DNA of being psychopathic types?  And these are characteristics that they didn’t ask for, they didn’t choose them, they were simply an accident of birth, yet nevertheless makes them a hazard to other people that they have to find some what to protect themselves from, somewhat to constrain people, so they can’t do things like Hitler did to so many people in the world. 

Well, you know, I don’t have all the answers to that.  I have thought about it, a lot of people thought about it.  I think, you know, it is one possibility when you’re considering candidates for a powerful position and considering who is going to get a job, you can say, "Well, maybe we ought to test them and see that they get a license, so that they’re qualified," the way we do with people that are going to be airline pilots or the people that are going to be a number of professional roles like doctors and lawyers and so forth—they have to produce a test for being licensed for those roles.  Well, if it’s a powerful role, we could say that part of the licensing process is to test your DNA to see whether or not you’re, you know, an innate psychopath because we do not want such people in such power positions. "You’ve got to go find something else to do in this world besides that because we cannot... we cannot trust you with that kind of power.  "

As just one idea.  I don’t say it’s the answer, I think we’ve got to think of a lot of ideas and put our minds to work on it.

Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller