Leadership, Morality and Humanity

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not, but in Real Life most of the furry fandom—for now, at least—lives in human bodies. We were all born with them, every last one of us. Some may claim souls of more diverse origin, but the flesh and blood nature of their humanity is beyond question. So, when I state that all of us are human and share common hard-wired human traits and frailties I hope people won’t throw too many stones.

For we are human, you know. Thoroughly, depressingly, and very completely so. We see the world through human eyes, hear with human ears, and process these inputs through a nervous system that, though we rarely consider the matter, was shaped solely by evolutionary forces and therefore is brimming with billions of years worth of illogical prejudices and mistaken priorities. Surviving long enough to produce successful offspring is the only thing that matters to Mr. Darwin. Not, for example, having the ability to apply dispassionate and objective logic to all situations. Yes, we’re the best-thinking creatures we yet know of. Yet at heart we’re still just another breed of animal, not immaterial shining globes of energy free from worldly distractions like hemorrhoids and noisy neighbors with ill-mannered children. Not only are we animals, we’re animals equipped with powerful drives and blind instincts, beasts who snarl and fight and sometimes even murder each other for reasons that an immaterial energy sphere would find totally incomprehensible. We’re demonstrably territorial, extraordinarily sexual, protective of our offspring and…

…we live in a social structure that requires a leader in order to function properly.

Over the years I’ve read a good bit about the difficulties involved in establishing how much of human behavior is the result of nurture and acculturation versus hard-wiring. While laboratory experiments tend to have great difficulty establishing beyond reasonable doubt the existence of very many hard-wired instincts in infants, I tend to look upon the incredible difficulties inherent in such research and take an anthropological/pattern-seeking approach. While the amount of variety in human culture is staggering, some patterns tend to repeat themselves a lot more often than others. These patterns, I believe, tend to reflect underlying hard-wiring. For example, practically all primitive societies that live in small groups of a few families tend to follow a “big man” model of leadership. This is perhaps the most egalitarian leadership structure humanity has ever known, and it can still be seen reflected again and again in human interaction wherever groups of about ten or so adults who know each other well need to cooperate for a short time period. In such groups, when a decision needs to be made a discussion develops. At some point someone will suggest consulting a person—usually but not always male in primitive societies—who everyone respects and looks up to. This is the “big man”. The discussion will then be taken to him, and he will offer an opinion. Great weight—greater than that of any other individual—will be placed on what he says, though it should be emphasized that the decision might well in the end go directly against his advice. Eventually when everyone feels there’s been enough discussion the decision is made and life goes on.

Many years ago I read an anthropological study on “big men”- this was more than twenty years ago and predates my connection to the World Wide Web, so I fear I can’t cite a source. But just as in America the taller you are the higher your pay is statistically likely to be (ref), “big men” did indeed tend to stand a bit taller than their village-mates. While I’ve never come across a study of their relative intelligence, I’d love to see one. Because, you see, I suspect they’d come out as merely average. They owe their status as leaders, in my estimation, not to the superior power of their minds or any great ability to foresee and forestall future troubles, but rather because at a very deep level their physique and personal charm/social skills  serve to calm and reassure their “troop” and make them feel good about submitting themselves to him.

As stated above, human minds and cultures are the result of billions of years of evolution, the most recent (and therefore most significant) pre-human eras having been spent as apes and pre-apes. We’re still apes in many ways so subtle that we tend to overlook them entirely because they loom too large in our existences to see. And while I rather hate to point this out, for all the nice things one can say about apes (they’re clever and highly entertaining creatures, for example) they do not select their leaders in a careful, reasoned way. The biggest and strongest males usually end up on top, frequently as the result of physical intimidation and combat. The rest of the troop not only willingly submits to the resulting leader, but seems to take great comfort basking in the shadow of his superior power and size. (“My leader can beat up your leader, ha ha ha!”)

We humans don’t do a much better job selecting, that I can see. And the older I get the more evidence I see that we’re looking for exactly the same traits that our simian cousins are. Or nearly the same, at least. We’re definitely looking for the same physical aspects, but as sentient beings humans also esteem high social skills and things like fashion-sense. (My leader is a snappier dresser than your leader, ha ha ha!”)

Is it really necessary for me to hammer home just how poorly we select our leaders? What percentage of the time does the taller candidate win the office of the President of the United States? Sixty-one percent according to some sources, with the effect having grown far stronger since the advent of television. Perhaps even more significantly it’s been more than a century since a shorter-than-average man held the office, and campaign aides notoriously spend weeks and months negotiating in painful detail issues such as how high and wide the lecterns at presidential debates will be, so as to flatter their own candidate’s appearance as much as possible. I’ll also mention in passing that many contemporary observers were quite certain that Nixon was defeated by Kennedy simply because he refused to wear makeup during their famous first-ever televised debate, fearing that if word got out the voters would think him effeminate. (This was in the very early days of the medium, keep in mind, and even leading politicians had very little to no practical experience with being on-camera.) The result was that Kennedy looked bright, young and fresh while Nixon’s features seemed washed out and his chin and jowls carried a disreputable-looking five-o-clock shadow. Voters who listened to the debate on radio tended to score Nixon the winner. TV-watchers, however, overwhelmingly felt that Nixon had lost, and badly at that. Again according to contemporary observers this was the turning point. And it was based strictly on physical appearance.

Lots of species select their leaders irrationally. Why is the biggest, toughest male mountain sheep the only one who gets to breed, after proving himself by driving the rest away? Yes, the decision process clearly works in terms of natural selection. But… Is the biggest and toughest and hardest to kill sheep automatically the best leader?

As a student of history I could go on for hours about what an awful job we humans have done in terms of selecting our leaders. Again and again we’ve chosen to follow those with big shoulders and average or even lesser brains, tall and handsome (mostly) men with fashion sense and wonderful social skills who again and again have led us into ever-deeper abysses. And in far too many cases we’ve loyally followed them to the brink and beyond, singing their praises (and by reflection our own) right up until that terrible crash at the bottom.

As a fandom, so far I think we’ve been lucky. Part of it is that so few of us are what general society would consider to be leadership material to begin with. Early in my fandom days I read a rather disparaging article on furries that referred to us as “zeta males”—in other words, the very opposite of traditional leader-types. My own experiences in and contact with the fandom lead me to believe that in actuality many of us—like me—were zetas as kids, and having suffered the pain of such low social status during our formative years mostly live our adult lives as lone wolves trying to eke out a social existence outside the conventional structure while accumulating as little additional scar tissue as possible. Though some of us have served as real-world leaders at need and for short periods (I’m one of them, and suspect it was made possible by the fact that I have huge shoulders)—most of us know better than to even make an attempt at real-world leadership. We are who we are as a group—there’s no sense denying it. High-level social skills and fashion sense are not our forte.

This makes us a mixture that seems to function a bit differently in groups than most of our peers. While the “big man” model of leadership breaks down for most folks when groups reach a certain size, instead of moving on to despotism, monarchy, a republic, communism or democracy (Wow! You play Civilization too? Cool!), furs seem to make that model stretch far beyond its usual limits. Perhaps it’s because we internet so well and the main problem with “big man” is the difficulty of allowing everyone enough airspace to speak until satisfied. Or maybe it’s because having felt so much social pain ourselves we’re more tolerant and listen a little more patiently. I don’t know the answer, but it seems to me that despite the use of formal titles like “Con Chair” an awful lot of furry get-togethers—particularly the smaller ones—are run based mostly on this most primitive of all leadership models. And that’s in my opinion the good news about us—”big man” is the fairest and most natural leadership system I know of, and when it works well creates the happiest society.

But there’s bad news, too.

Remember that big old ram who’s won the right to be Top Sheep after so much dominance-proving head-knocking? He didn’t put himself in harm’s way because he thought head-knocking was fun—otherwise it’d be the year-round pastime of athletic mountain sheep everywhere. Instead he was driven to prove himself numbero uno despite heaven only knows what kind of pain and suffering in a world entirely devoid of headache powders. His physiology made the decision for him—his conscious mind (if any) was merely along for the ride. What makes you think humans are any different? Our own internal and irrational need to ascend the status/leadership ladder is a well-known phenomenon, and has provided the motive force behind some of our most spectacular behavior. Leadership and status-related drivers like religion and sex have served as the primary motivators for such completely rational historical undertakings as building the pyramids, sailing a thousand ships to Troy, the Crusades and putting men on the Moon. The total percentage of human effort and energy expended on matters related primarily to increasing individual or group status in the social hierarchy and participating in the drive to the top of the heap would be simply stunning if it could ever be calculated. I’d personally guess something north of seventy percent.

We furs are hardly immune to such powerful human drives. Indeed, as the fandom has expanded and leaders have come and gone I’ve been frankly shocked to see how shabbily—and how predictably—they’re treated. Typically they originate by distinguishing themselves as convention organizers, or perhaps especially gifted raconteurs, entertainers or artists. They become “big men”—people consult them regarding their problems and give their replies disproportionate consideration. As time goes on they’re given the opportunity to take on more and more responsibility and be listened to by more and more followers. And they accept those opportunities, of course; the drive to become a leader— it was referred to as “the drive (or sometimes urge) to alpha” when I was a young man— is a basic instinct. Then, seemingly suddenly and out of nowhere a certain invisible line is crossed and they’re no longer beloved consensual “big men” anymore, but rather “swelled heads” and “guys who can’t squeeze their egos inside an elevator with them, so they have to take the stairs.” The rivals, in other words, are ready for a good head-butting contest. They want what the existing fandom leader has, and due to their basic irrational lust for the top slot they want it so badly they can taste it. But first they’re going to snipe from the brush for a while and weaken their target via a thousand small wounds. Who knows? Maybe he’ll give up and just suddenly disappear from the fandom entirely.

It’s terribly sad to watch this happen again and again. A new potential leader-type rises, rises, rises… Then he’s ripped out of the sky by his former devoted followers with extreme prejudice and claws fully extended. While this phenomenon also exists in the “real” world—and some individuals within the fandom fly higher than others before falling victim—we seem to have a far more vindictive case of it than most groups. I suspect it’s because the drive to the top truly is one of the great irrational motivators of human behavior, one that far too many furries have been forced to suppress in their everyday lives. So when they see someone else becoming what they themselves would very much like to be they… Well, out come the claws in force.

It doesn’t help that we’re such a young fandom, either. Youth tends towards both extreme idealism and broken-hearted finger-pointing once the hero is seen to have feet of clay just like everyone else. “My god, he gets drunk at conventions sometimes in the evenings! I’d never have imagined it! And they say his apartment is always a terrible mess. But look at this new guy over there—his comic strip is so funny, and no one’s heard anything bad about him yet. So let’s go to him for advice next time instead of a slovenly alcoholic! Besides, look at those shoulders! I don’t know just why, but they make me feel so happily inferior and willing to submit!”

And so the wheel turns yet again as our fandom raises up leadership figures one after another, first to achieve the dizziest of heights and then be dashed down and destroyed by humanity’s irrational drives and instincts. While I never get to know most of them, being short on social skills even for a fur, I’ve learned over time to feel sorry for them at every stage of the process. The higher they rise the more thoroughly their soul will be ripped to shreds on the way down. And all of this thanks to monkey instincts none of us asked for and most aren’t even aware of. So far the score is a hundred percent; I don’t know of a single would-be fandom leader who’s escaped this cycle completely.

And for my own part? Well… If you’re a former fandom leader and someday I walk up to you out of nowhere and offer to buy you a drink, well…

Now you know why.

About Rabbit

Rabbit Is the author of over thirty published furry novels and novellas as well as numerous columns and articles in other furry venues. He's a retired Tennessee auto worker.

Before posting a comment, please read our Code of Conduct

14 thoughts on “Leadership, Morality and Humanity

  1. I dunno if I’d say that I’ve seen fandom leaders in this fandom as “ripped down” so much as they are undone by their own hypocrisy and misdeeds. People can only put up with other people’s abusive actions so long.

    Just how I’ve seen it, though. I tend to think it’s quite the opposite. When on top, a lot of people in this fandom forget their origins and forget that we’re not exactly the peak fandom in the world.. and those people do things that hurt a large number of others in this fandom. My mom had a saying she taught me… “Truth will out.” Basically, that means, eventually people that hurt others will pay for that.

    There are some furs who have done bad things and treated people badly, and the community has shied away from them. I’ve seen a lot more very nice furs give plenty of their time and themselves to others who’ve been elevated up through positions of leadership and have retained that leadership AND their friendships over the long term of 10 years+.

    1. My experiences differ from yours in that I cannot name a single leader in the fandom (among those relatively few I’m aware of– again I’m hardly plugged into the heart of Furry Social Central and I acknowledge this) that I haven’t heard nasty and for the most part jealous gossip about, and the better-known the leader the more gleefully it’s delivered. Eventually this sort of thing will tear pretty much anyone down. I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that my experiences are different. And that it may take more than ten years for the wheel to turn all the way ’round. I do agree, however, that a large percentage of our ‘failed’ leaders in fact self-destruct. Perhaps I should’ve mentioned that in the main article.

      I also perhaps should’ve mentioned that I’m something of a cynic when it comes to human nature. Reading a lot of history will do that to you.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. It’s an interesting exercise to match the “big-man” model of leadership to fandom, but I’d say that what’s more important in such communities is passion – the feeling that something should be done for the good of the group, and finding that nobody else is going to, and you can. Passion will lead you further – the big man seeks only to be at the top of the pile, and expends only enough effort to get there, while the impassioned fan seeks perfection.

    In fact, I would caution against idealizing the “big-man” model. Many organizations fail when they grow beyond the abilities of those who created them, especially if they are unwilling or unable to hand them on to others (as may well be the case if everyone relies on them to make the big decisions, perhaps because they have eliminated all other big-men). Such concepts of leadership also lead to the idolization of leaders, and the inevitable disappointment when they fail to match up. Better models harness the contributions of multiple passionate individuals towards a common goal.

    As for your main point – certainly, there can be a crab mentality among fans, most of whom are unaware of the level of work that comes with the status they aspire to, whether it be organizational, financial, artistic or otherwise. Before piling on, it’s a good idea to consider whether you could really do a better job yourself – and if not, who will take their place if you succeed in dragging them down or driving them out.

    We should also not expect our leaders to meet standards which they have not agreed to, and which are not part of their jobs. It’s not a problem if the con treasurer enjoys a drink or two, or smokes a pack a day, or supports a different political party to your own, as long as the organization’s accounts are accurate and filed on time.

    There is, however, a difference between this and a failure to do your duty:

    The servant who knew his master’s wishes but didn’t prepare himself or do what was wanted will receive a severe beating. But he who did things that deserved a beating without knowing it will receive a light beating.

    Much will be required from those to whom much has been given. But even more will be demanded from the one to whom much has been entrusted.
    — Luke 12:47-48 (part of the Parable of the Faithful Servant)

    In truth, most leaders are servants. If we have given something to them – our time, money, or artistic contributions – we expect something in return. If we entrust our valuables (physical or virtual) to their keeping, our expectations are all the greater. And those who accept responsibilities should not be surprised that people are annoyed if they fail to fulfill them – or if they do so in a way that many disagree with.

    1. Thank you for introducing me to a new term– I’d never heard of “crab mentality” before!

      As always, Green, your points are cogent and well-argued. I find it interesting, however, that you quoted the Bible in your reply. That’s not because I have anything against doing so– while I’m personally an agnostic I find that mankind’s better-thought-out holy books contain enormous amounts of wisdom and good advice and the example you cite is one of them. But what struck me was that i very nearly referred to Christianity 101 myself in the original article and then deleted it. You see, my grandfather (another enormous repository of human wisdom, I assure you) used to remind me all the time that only one perfect man ever lived, and that society reacted to the situation by crucifying him.

      Always good to hear from you, Green. Sorry I didn’t have time for more than a quick “hello!” at Furry Fiesta! Would love to share another drink with you sometime.

  3. 1. Morality isn’t really addressed in this post…

    2. You did not provide a compelling argument that a “big-man” model is even remotely fair, let alone “most egalitarian leadership structure humanity has ever known”. It’s sexist.

    3. The reason people fail at being leaders is because they don’t understand how to wield power. Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power” come to mind.

    4. I think centralized power structures are inherently bad. Buni asked a useful question on JM’s last post: “Are we ready to be a community, or are we merely a mob?” One of the key features of mobs is that they require a critical mass of people and a captivating leader. Because you can’t get rid of masses of people (…) the only way to eliminate mob mentality from society is to make everybody capable of thinking critically without a leader. For an interesting commentary on why reliance on authority and leadership are undesirable even when their rule is nearly flawless, watch Urobuchi Gen’s Psycho-Pass.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      1) It seem to me that the last five paragraphs of the article very much deal with morality, or a lack thereof. If you can’t find my moral commentary written between the lines given that hint, then I’ve done such an awful job as a writer that further guidance probably won’t help and you have my sincere apologies.

      2) This article is written for entertainment, and in order to be readable must be kept to a certain length. When I think that something is pretty much self-evident, then I tend to treat it as such and not consume valuable verbiage justifying what I believe to be already clear. Otherwise, I could end up wasting page after page trying to establish what “is” is.

      That said…

      Do you consider it sexist that gorillas pretty much choose only males as leaders? Or baboons? Part of my point is that we’re rather closely related to them, you see, and therefore probably share a good bit of their behavioral programming. Another part of my point is that humans, like gorillas, very often choose their leaders irrationally. Sexism would certainly count as irrational.

      3) I believe that may be _one_ reason people fail. But I also believe that there are many, many others that have nothing whatsoever to do with the would-be leader’s skills and knowledge. An ex-slave in the USA in 1868, for example, might have a very difficult time leading the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan no matter how extraordinary his leadership skills or gifts, for example. Or even the local Mason’s Lodge or Chamber of Commerce. Unless the group of followers in question are willing to accept a person as their leader, said person will get absolutely nowhere.

      4) You bring up some very interesting points here, but I think they’re so far from relevant in the Real World that the issues are largely theoretical. As a blue-collar worker, well… A surprisingly high percentage of my co-workers are functionally illiterate, much less capable of genuinely critical thinking. While most of my co-workers are wonderful, loving human beings who’d do anything to help out a friend and I’m proud to be one of them for this reason, most read nothing more intellectually challenging than “People” magazine or “NFL Today”. Most would be incapable, if asked, of describing the scientific method, identifying any of the things Isaac Newton is famous for, describing natural selection or naming more than three planets. (And I suspect I’m being generous at three. Upon reflection, I bet most would answer, “The Sun, the Moon, Mars, uh….”) A recent survey showed that the majority of American adults were uncertain whether or not the Earth revolves around the sun, but I think my place of work could beat that score– frighteningly, I suspect we’re a bit above-average in terms of American intellectual attainment.

      My point here is that you may well be right– leadership may no longer be necessary in human society once we all learn to think critically for ourselves. We won’t need airplanes or cars anymore when we can teleport wherever we’d like to go either, and of the two I bet we’ll achieve teleportaion first.

      Again, thank you for your comments. You made me think, and that’s always fun and worthwhile!

  4. While I think there are some valid points in this theory, I’m not sure it really explains human behavior well when the numbers get larger. For example, two of the most powerful human leaders in Europe over the last couple of centuries were short, hardly charismatic, and dressed badly: Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte. Reading history, I have difficulty understanding how these two came to wield the power they did, or how they held onto it for as long as they did.

    As for furry, yes, I’ve said myself that “leadership,” such as it is, often happens by accident and slippery slopes, and continues to grow until the chance leader makes a serious misstep. I agree this is hardly the way to choose a leader. I also think that leaders should be more advisors and less “deciders.” But that doesn’t seem to be how it works out, whether in furry fandom or in the US Congress.

    1. Hi, Altivo!
      Adolf Hitler was badly dressed? Were it not for the limitless evil associated with Nazi uniforms, I suspect that they’d be widely judged the best-looking ever produced. (And, as a sidenote, Hitler himself drew the preliminary designs.) Personally, I think Napoleon cut a pretty fine figure in uniform as well. I’ve also read that both were highly charismatic when they wished to be. Napoleon’s speeches electrified his soldiers, or at least they certainly did in the Nile and Italian campaigns– I’d have to do some research to find out if they still worked as well later in his career. And Hitler, well… I’ve heard a recording of him telling a huge crowd that– this quote is from memory and very nearly correct if not perfectly word for word– “I have freed the German people of the necessity of thinking!” The response was such a full-throated roar of complete approval that I was left shaken and feeling more than a little ill. I would submit that if you can make a crowd cheer _that_ statement with such enthusiasm, even in Nazi Germany, well… The man had an incredible gift for oratory. Too bad it was so misused.

      As for height…

      The tallness-numbers I cited in the article suggest statistical trends– in theory any short man with enough other gifts and qualifications can overcome the bias. Still, they tell a very powerful story about why we _really_ vote the way we do. Also, though I didn’t mention it in the article itself–largely because I can’t cite the source– I recall as a young man reading studies where intensive and statistically-valid polling techniques showed that a specific candidate would run “X” points better in a blue suit than, say, a gray one. And then the same candidate might run “Y” points worse in a brown suit than the gray. At any rate, it’s well-known that a candidate’s wardrobe receives a huge amount of attention, for the simple reason that it’s been proven to make a noticeable difference in the outcome of the election. For that matter, I was just listening to a podcast the other day that dealt at some length with “right-hand bias”. Apparently it’s been statistically proven that everything else being equal a human will tend to prefer the rightmost item in a display and rate it as being of higher quality than the rest, even when they’re all identical. The fact that this sort of thing is significant enough to affect political campaign strategies, I would submit, speaks very badly for how the human race chooses its leaders.

      1. I believe it was also shown that the first candidate listed on the ballot for any given office tends to get slightly more votes than the others. I don’t remember how that was checked, but it was probably by randomly passing out ballots that were printed in different orders. This doesn’t surprise me, though, since I’ve long been convinced that democracy is more a fallacy than it is a system. The larger the number of voters, the less sense seems to be used in deciding whom to select.

  5. Leadership is different than charisma and both are just some of the traits that factor into real power. There are many ways to lead. Not all of them require charisma, or being tall or doing things all yourself, or delegating, etc.

    Those who simply want to tell others what to do or be on top tend to make poor leaders because the act of leadership almost be definitions inspires others to follow. Generally bullying, bribing or coercing are not considered examples of leadership.

    If you are wondering why furry leaders wind up in the circle of drama it is because few people in the fandom (or any fandom) are willing to put in the effort to get things like cons done. Yes showing up is 50% of the job, but at that point you have to actually start showing leadership and the absence of good leadership leads to drama. Real leaders maybe everyone feel valued and wanting to do their best to achieve the group’s goal.

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      This article wasn’t meant to be about _how_ to lead– I covered my personal feelings on that matter that pretty well in a book called “Lieutenant”.


      Rather, I’m attempting to get a handle on the dynamics by which the fandom’s leaders first arise, and then (in my experience) often treated rather badly for their trouble. An article on how to lead furs would read very, very differently.

      Again, I appreciate you taking the trouble to comment– thanks!

      1. Do you ever plan to write said article about how to less furs? I think that would be a great read – hysterical on the levels of attempting to herd kittens via horseback.

  6. Oh goodness no! Thank you for your kind words, but I know better than to stick my head into _that_ particular noose. Though as a purely comedic effort, posted under a pseudonym, I must admit the idea has enormous potential…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.