The Reptiles vs. the Mammals

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By B. Joseph White

Dichotomies are deeply embedded in human thought and traditions of all kinds. We love to think and talk in terms of black and white. Women are from Venus, men are from Mars. Liberals versus conservatives. Main Street and Wall Street. Good versus evil. Us and them. Yin and yang.

Dichotomies are, by their nature, simple and simplistic, useful and misleading, at best partially valid and always incomplete. We should remember that they can have serious consequences. For example, in the hands of unscrupulous, demagogic leaders, dichotomous language—"us versus them"—can open the door to discrimination and abuse. But dichotomies, used constructively, can interest, instruct and entertain us. They can stimulate new ways for us to think and speak about familiar things. They can be very useful in helping us coin convenient, memorable language. . .language like "Reptile leaders" and "Mammal leaders." Let me explain.

The Softball Teams

In the 1990s, I was dean of the University of Michigan Business School. Being dean of a top business school is an interesting job. You're surrounded by faculty, students and staff who are smart and independent. Because your job is to get them moving in roughly the same direction, some people describe being dean as the professional equivalent of "herding cats." But I never found it that way.

Rather, I figured my job was to understand what made everybody tick, then appeal both to their highest collective aspirations ("We intend to be the world's best business school and be recognized as such") and to their most selfish ("No one wants you to have an endowed chair, more colleagues and a big research budget more than I do, but you'll have to do a great job of teaching, writing and service if it's going to happen"). My job description, as I saw it, was simple: I would help the members of the school community make their individual dreams come true in exchange for their helping make our collective dreams for the school come true.

Given this way of thinking, I always had my ear to the ground for insights that would enable me to understand the community and the people I was charged to lead. Early in my tenure as dean, I got a big one.

Each summer, after the students had graduated or gone off to their internships, we had a picnic for faculty and staff and their families. On the day of the school picnic, workplace differences were set aside. Or so I thought.

One summer, shortly before the picnic, I saw an e-mail announcing a faculty softball game. It was going to be "the Reptiles versus the Mammals." On closer reading, I noticed that the captain of the Reptiles was also the chair of the accounting department. The captain of the Mammals was the chair of the organizational behavior (read "human relations") department.

It turned out that the two captains, Gene and Jim, had organized the game and named the teams. As I suspected, there was nothing accidental about the choice of names. Words, after all, are the raw material of faculty work! The Reptiles were composed mainly of faculty trained in economics and were thus drawn from disciplines such as accounting, finance and business economics. The Mammals were mainly faculty trained in the behavioral sciences and drawn from departments with a human relations orientation, such as organizational behavior and marketing.

As dean, I thought the idea of the Reptiles versus the Mammals in softball was hilarious and extremely clever. Anyone who knew anything about business and business schools immediately got it. It was the analytical, numbers-oriented, flinty-eyed (not to say cold and calculating) faculty versus the holistic, people-oriented, dewy-eyed (not to say naïve and bad-at-math) faculty.

The Reptiles and Mammals faculty softball teams stimulated lines of thought in my mind that continue to develop today.

Reptiles and Mammals: The Human Metaphor

In the same way that we can learn deeply important things about work, family and life from Death of a Salesman or about leadership, family, and tragedy from King Lear, we can learn a lot about critical dimensions of leadership from a Reptile versus Mammal metaphor. But before we get started, let me quickly state the obvious: My metaphor is not rooted in the science of reptiles and mammals. It is more literary than scientific.

In nature, real reptiles are cold-blooded creatures. They are ectothermic, which means their body temperatures are dependent on the temperature of their surroundings. They have an external covering of scales or horny plates. They usually lay eggs to reproduce. Mammals, which most scientists believe evolved from reptiles some 200 million years ago, are warm-blooded creatures. They are homeothermic, maintaining a relatively constant and warm body temperature independent of the temperature of their surroundings. Mammals have a covering of hair on the skin. Females bear live young and have milk-producing mammary glands for nourishing them.

And the workplace human counterparts of reptiles and mammals? In their pure types, I suggest that reptilian humans are primarily detached, analytical and critical in their orientation toward issues and people at work. By contrast, mammalian humans are engaged, emotional and nurturing. Reptiles tend to be competitive and strive to dominate. Mammals tend to be cooperative and strive for consensus. Reptiles are oriented toward contracts and formality when it comes to agreements among parties, while Mammals prefer informal agreements and understandings based on shared values and community needs.

Both Critical

The best leaders must be both Reptilian and Mammalian. Here's why:

Leaders must be Reptilian because organizations are challenged to survive in a competitive, Darwinian environment and because they are populated by fallible human beings who are, at times, negligent, fraudulent, ornery and bullying.

Leaders must be Mammalian because organizations are composed of human beings who are free to choose the organizations with which they affiliate (it helps leaders to think of employees as volunteers), possess the knowledge and ideas the organization needs to thrive, are capable of amazing and wonderful things and are hungry for inspiration, challenge, achievement and recognition.

Leaders must be Reptilian because people need order, stability, routines and resources in order to perform productively, reliably, and efficiently.

Leaders must be Mammalian because people need attention, room to grow and someone to believe in them in order to do their best, learn and be creative.

Leaders must be Reptilian in order to establish authority and exercise power. They must be Mammalian because people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Leaders must be Reptilian to stand up to a harsh and threatening competitive environment. They must be Mammalian to embrace and empathize with suffering humanity.

Leaders must be Reptilian because organizations need good management. They must be Mammalian because people deserve good leadership.

Reptilian leadership improves the odds that an organization will survive. Mammalian leadership improves the odds that an organization will thrive.

About the Author(s)

B. Joseph White is president of the University of Illinois. He was previously interim president of the University of Michigan and dean of its top-ranked business school for ten years. A business executive, he has served as director or trustee of numerous large companies and several health-care organizations. He is based in Urbana, IL.