Course tutor's taking us to the zoo tomorrow... Nicholas Pyke finds out why

Are you a "mandrill manager"? Perhaps your boss is, or your boss's boss. You can't escape them completely, says Tudor Rickards, the professor of creativity and organisational change at the Manchester Business School, because mandrill managers are everywhere.

This variety of ape, famous for its red nose, turns out to be one of the biggest bullies in the simian world. Mandrills are creatures dedicated to the cult of the Alpha Male. They spend their lives climbing to the top of the group hierarchy and, once there, behave abominably. Bottoms are flashed, willies waved, rivals clobbered and females impregnated with abandon.

It is, you might think, an everyday tale from the boardroom or the golf course, one all too familiar to corporate workers on either side of the Atlantic. But, despite its prevalence, this is not the only model of power, nor is it particularly effective in the long term, says Professor Rickards. The sad thing about the top mandrill, the one with the reddest nose of all, is that he exhausts himself fighting off the rivals and then, inevitably, is deposed.

The professor hopes his students will take the point. They will get plenty of opportunity because in a few months the monkey house at Chester Zoo will be an integral part of the Manchester school's MBA course. In partnership with zoologist Stephen McEwan, who heads the education unit at Chester, the course is staging weekly visits to watch the apes go about their business. For the students, the hope is they get some idea of the different leadership strategies employed by different species, for good or for ill. Professor Rickards hopes to develop some useful analytical tools in his own work on "distributive leadership", where power is decentralised, in contrast with an older model of the charismatic or heroic leader.

Animal metaphors, particularly rodent, are already well-established in business literature and are often used to justify tough behaviourist psychology of the "do-it-or-you're-fired" variety. This is the sort of thing the Manchester Business School is hoping to debunk.

"We're asking what can we learn from studying other social groups as well as human beings. There's a range of leadership behaviours that you see when you start looking at different animal species. What you actually see in animals is a subtle balance of competition and collaboration. It raises questions about the optimum size for an organisation, for example, about the balance between collaboration and competition. We'll ask the students to go back and reflect on their views on leadership and whether their views have changed after what they saw in the zoo."

The handful of students who have taken part so far have been surprised by the range of different strategies on view. "I think they expected to find a common pattern of leadership wherever they looked across the animal species," he says.

Professor Rickards is already well-known for introducing his MBA students to "horse whispering" as a metaphor for leadership. Some of the best horse trainers in the world, he points out, ignore coercive methods and instead rely on horses' natural desire to please as the main source of motivation.

Mandrills have no truck with that sort of outlook. They run the ultimate macho male group. Collaboration is almost zero. The male mandrill is almost three times the size of the female and virtually all mating is rape.

"The alpha male spends his whole time defending his right to be the alpha male, but despite all the aggression he only ever lasts about two years. By then he's mated with all the females. But he's exhausted. His body loses its colour. His red nose fades from red into a rather pathetic pink. If it wasn't so sick it would be funny."

The professor won't name names but, as he puts it, "some of the managers I see are very much mandrill managers". The prevalence of crude hierarchies means that what he describes is all too recognisable. Gary Ince, head of the Institute for Leadership and Management which runs the country's largest system of workplace qualifications, acknowledges that people "often confuse being firm with being aggressive". Questions of communication, he says, tend to get left out.

As Professor Rickards suggests, the arrival of successful but non-confrontational soccer managers such as Arsenal's Arsene Wenger is raising awkward questions about the methods used by their predecessors.

Chester Zoo has its own positive role models. Chimps have many faults and they too operate in rigid hierarchies but, compared with mandrills, they are sophisticates. "They are a lot more intelligent. It's a much subtler kind of social relationship," says Professor Rickards. "The adult males play with the children to curry favour, for example. The alpha male even goes in for a bit of grooming."

This he feels is not unlike some kinds of high-pressure workplaces - Hollywood film studios, for example, where the crews are tyrannised by their desire to succeed and the need to keep the cameras rolling. A handful of stars can do as they please, but for the rest of them, even toilet breaks are out of the question for large parts of the day. Professor Rickards says that in these circumstances a handful of employees with spare time resort to a version of grooming to keep their colleagues sane - a cup of coffee here, a shoulder massage or a bagel there.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology up the road at the Lancaster University Management School, sympathises with the Manchester approach, even though he feels a study of humans would be more profitable. "Lots of management power structures are very much animal-related. That's our problem," he says.

Prof Cooper, a Californian, blames US management models and an obsession with short-term efficiency for the aggression now associated with work. He says that more co-operative human structures, whether in businesses like the John Lewis Partnership, which is owned by its workers, or in other (supposedly less civilised) human civilisations, also have lessons for the business world.

"Sadly, we've become ape-like, Americanised. We already have these structures in business. People are already too animal-like in their behaviour. What we need to learn is not to go to the animal kingdom."