What Sex Teaches Us About Leadership

Billions of years of evolution show leaders how to survive and thrive

Posted Feb 27, 2015

Why do we have sex? No, seriously:  what ancient biological imperative drives us to spend significant energy  making  imperfect copies of ourselves instead of using much less energy to make perfect copies of ourselves the way bacteria do, by simply cloning themselves?

Believe it or not the answer to this question holds deep implications for what it means to be a visionary leader.

Here’s why

Sexual reproduction  increases the diversity –and survivability-- of offspring two ways. First, as a the single strand of DNA that goes into  a sperm or egg is made, it randomly draws from the double stranded  DNA from the prospective parents’ parents  and recombines this DNA into a single  strand  that is different—in random ways—from either of the parent’s original double strands. Second, during fertilization of the egg (that grows into an offspring), the two single strands of DNA  from each parent combine in novel ways to make unique  DNA of the offspring.

If you didn’t follow all of this, simply think of sexual reproduction as the shuffling of genetic cards three times: once when a sperm is made once when an egg is made and once when the sperm and the egg  combine.

This shuffling and recombination insures that offspring will be different from the parents --and from each other-- in unpredictable ways.

In other words, sexual reproduction produces unpredictable  variability in genetic traits, such as resistance to disease and metabolic rate, before those changes are needed. That way, if unpredictable disease, famine or other environmental change come along,  some  of the offspring will  already be genetically prepared for the change, promoting the survival of the species.

Bottom line: the best way to prepare for the unpredictable is to do the unpredictable before the unpredictable happens. Apple  did this with the introduction of the I-phone, Walmart introduced a phramacy, Google developed self-driving cars.

The lesson for leaders, from billions of years of successful evolution, is that it’s worth spending energy to change an organization and its products and services before the organization must  change in order  to prepare for an unpredictable future.  Most companies—especially large ones-- lack the agility to react quickly enough to major changes to save themselves  (87% of the original Fortune 500 companies are gone now, mostly  because they reacted too slowly to changes in competition or consumer behavior).  Therefore, changing your organization in unpredictable ways –the way sexual reproduction does--before change is thrust upon you, is a very good idea.

Given how resistant individuals and organizations are to change, this is a mammoth task, but it can be done. Jeff Bezos shifted from books to general products,  Bill Gates  adapted to the “new”  Internet in advance of when Microsoft's survival depended on it. Ditto for A.G. Lashley at Procter and Gamble and Jack Welch at GE, both  of whom  transformed profitable organizations  into much more profitable companies by changing ahead of the curve.

Good leaders change in smart ways when forced to; great leaders change in smart ways before they have to.

More Posts