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Opinion: Studying the animal kingdom can give us key insights into effective patterns of leadership

Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

He recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 12 February 2024

The animal kingdom unleashes a treasure trove of invaluable insights to help become a better leader. For example, modelled after the matriarchal leadership of elephant herds, effective leaders prioritise the well-being and cohesion of their teams.

In September 2023, as I wove through the Kruger National Park on a game drive with my family, I paid close attention to the dynamics of the animals before me. Beyond their physical splendour, observing animals in their natural habitat can provide valuable insights into teamwork, communication, adaptability and resilience. Indeed, there is merit in discovering the power of leadership through the eyes of the animal kingdom.

Loose references to the law of the jungle suggest that there is a hierarchy with defined boundaries and what we would refer to as a set of rules. It is a defined ecosystem, with each animal’s traits and behaviour patterns fitting in seamlessly to survive and coexist. While there is not what one would call “perfect harmony”, there is demonstrable order, which is not always visible in human-led structures.

The animal kingdom unleashes a treasure trove of invaluable insights to help become a better leader. Joanna Swash, the CEO of Money Penny, once said that “in our search for a definitive list of the attributes we need to lead a business we look at the world for inspiration and the natural, wild one can give us some interesting insights: working together like wolves, adapting like chameleons, the work ethic of ants… Welcome to the jungle.”

In my book From the Baobab to the Mosquito, I explore some leadership lessons from the lion. For instance, across various African cultures, the lion has emerged as a symbol of courage and bravery. The lion is seen as the king of the jungle – a powerful and majestic creature known for its strength and fearlessness. The lion fearlessly hunts its prey, displaying exceptional courage as it confronts challenges and defends its territory.

It stands to reason, then, that the qualities of the lion are important descriptors for leadership – particularly as we consider what this means in an African context. Leaders must fundamentally lead from a place of courage and bravery. A leader who embodies the qualities of a lion can inspire others, create positive change and guide their team towards success.

I also explore the Sepedi saying “tau tša hloka seboka di shitwa ke nare e hlotsa”, which means that lions that fail to work as a team struggle to bring down a wounded buffalo. This saying emphasises the importance of collaboration and cooperation in achieving common goals. Lions typically hunt in prides. By coordinating their actions, lions can bring down larger prey, such as buffalo, that they may not be able to handle individually.

The adaptability and resilience of elephants in the face of challenges demonstrates the importance of creating a workplace culture that embraces change and supports team members during adversity.

When lions fail to collaborate and work as a team, bringing down even a wounded buffalo becomes much more challenging. If there is a lack of coordination and unity, it weakens their ability to overcome this challenge effectively. They may struggle to overpower the buffalo or even fail to bring it down entirely, potentially endangering themselves in the process.

The wisdom embedded in this Sepedi saying suggests that even those seen as strong and capable can face difficulties if they do not collaborate and coordinate their efforts.

There are other lessons we can learn from the lion. For example, when a lion pride has a kill, there is often a silent understanding of the hierarchy. This, however, does not mean that the whole pride does not get a turn. Lions recognise the interdependence within the pride, understanding that each member plays a role in the collective survival and prosperity of the group. This cooperative approach ensures the well-being of the entire pride, fostering a sense of community and reinforcing the idea that leadership involves not only asserting authority, but also ensuring the welfare of the entire team.

Wisdom of the herd

It isn’t just lions that we can learn from. The gentle giants of the animal kingdom also give us insight into how to approach leadership. Modelled after the matriarchal leadership of elephant herds, effective leaders prioritise the well-being and cohesion of their teams. This entails drawing from the wisdom of experienced team members, fostering empathy and encouraging open communication.

The adaptability and resilience of elephants in the face of challenges demonstrates the importance of creating a workplace culture that embraces change and supports team members during adversity. Additionally, the emphasis on long-term vision, inclusive decision-making and protecting vulnerable members reinforces the idea that successful leadership involves considering the collective welfare and growth of the entire team.

Swash refers to this as future-proofing. As she outlines, the matriarch imparts crucial knowledge to others in the herd, sharing insights about waterholes, herd protection and other essential skills. This emphasises the idea that knowledge, when shared, becomes a powerful tool for innovation and long-term effectiveness. Leaders must thus embrace a learning mindset to future-proof their organisations and plan for succession.

Badgers: An unparalleled determination

Though seemingly inconspicuous, there are even lessons to be learnt from the honey badger, particularly about resilience and persistence. As Josh Linker outlines, the honey badger embodies a tenacious and unwavering approach to achieving goals. Not deterred by challenges or pain, the honey badger demonstrates an unparalleled determination to reach its objectives. Its singular focus is unshakable, and it is immune to distractions and temptations.

Operating with an unstoppable mindset, the honey badger is able to overcome setbacks, competitors and extreme conditions while displaying confidence that ensures the accomplishment of its mission. The honey badger also acknowledges possible risks and dangers but still charges ahead, refusing to let fear diminish its zeal. Notably, its ferocity inadvertently contributes to the survival of others in the ecosystem, showcasing the honey badger’s impact on the common good through its relentless pursuit of success.

Symbiosis

Then there are overarching lessons we can learn from various dynamics in the animal kingdom. For instance, symbiosis, which is a mutually beneficial relationship, must be based on mutual respect and understanding. An example is the buffalo and oxpeckers. Oxpeckers feed on ticks and parasites that infest buffaloes, providing the buffalo with a form of pest control. In return, the buffalo offers the oxpeckers a constant source of food and a safe perch. This emphasises the value of partnerships where both parties derive mutual benefits.

Similarly, the relationship between blue wildebeest and zebras is an example of commensalism, a form of symbiosis where one species benefits while the other is neither harmed nor helped. Zebras often graze alongside wildebeest, creating a mixed herd. Zebras, with their sharp vision, can detect predators early, providing an added layer of safety for the wildebeest.

Beyond the idea of partnerships, these examples suggest that leaders should seek collaborations where each participant brings unique strengths and resources to the table, creating a more robust and resilient collective. Leaders should also carefully evaluate potential collaborations to ensure that the partnership aligns with the organisation’s objectives and values. There is thus a need for strategic thinking and due diligence required for collaboration.

Recognising that humans, like animals, possess certain primal instincts can inform leaders about the need to create environments that align with these instincts for optimal performance.

We can also learn from habituation, a form of learning in which an individual or animal becomes less responsive to a particular stimulus over time. Habituation is a fundamental aspect of adaptive behaviour as it allows organisms to filter out non-threatening or irrelevant stimuli from their environment, focusing attention on more critical information.

However, becoming accustomed to certain behaviours or situations, particularly negative ones, can lead to detrimental consequences. In the context of wild animals, habituation poses a risk as it makes them more vulnerable to human interaction and potential harm.

Applied to leadership, tolerating or getting used to poor behaviour within an organisation can have a negative impact and lead to a toxic culture. The expression “pardon the bad, injure the good”, for instance, suggests that negative behaviours harm the overall health and productivity of the team.

Leaders who allow poor conduct may thus find it challenging to address and change the cultural norms once they become ingrained or widespread. Therefore, it is wholly necessary for leaders to address issues promptly and not become habituated to negative patterns within a group or organisation.

These examples, of course, merely scratch the surface. At every turn, there are lessons to be learnt. Building on the theory of John Maynard Keynes, Thomas Hobbes once referred to the idea of “animal spirits” as our instincts and primal nature. Recognising that humans, like animals, possess certain primal instincts can inform leaders about the need to create environments that align with these instincts for optimal performance.

Hobbes’s thesis suggests that effective leadership calls for leaders to channel these “animal spirits” towards constructive and collaborative efforts. As Keynes reminds us, “most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits – a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities”.

I would argue that it is through a return to the lessons of the animal kingdom that we can make sense of this.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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