May 2011: What can business leaders learn from animals?May 1, 2011
If you’re like most leaders, your performance improvement efforts focus on books, mentors, colleagues and your own experience.
Science has given businesses another, little-known source of leadership wisdom: wild animals.
Jaak Panksepp, professor of neuroscience at Bowling Green State University, says we have “a deep ancestral relationship with the other mammals.” That deep connection includes millions of years of group leadership evidence among elephants, chimpanzees and wolves, to name a few.
Biologists and anthropologists have uncovered patterns that question long-held assumptions about leadership. Among their findings:
1. Knowing who’s in charge keeps group members calm.
Dr. Richard Estes, a researcher at The Smithsonian and Harvard Museums and author of The Safari Companion, says the absolute leadership of an elephant matriarch provides stability and calmness:
“An elephant matriarch sets the herd’s direction and pace and the rest of the herd follows. Disturbances cause the herd to cluster around the matriarch with calves in the middle. Whether they flee or charge is up to her. Should something happen to the matriarch, such as getting shot, the rest mill about in blind panic.”
Chickens have pecking orders, monkeys have dominance levels and every wolf pack has an alpha pair. Hierarchies among mammals regulate group anxiety and maximize productivity. That’s a huge survival advantage.
My experience supports those facts. Where employees don’t know who’s in charge, I’ve observed more stress and gossip, less focus and discipline.
Similarly, families where children are running the show can safely be judged as “counter-evolutionary.” In strong, healthy families, kids have a voice, but are not in charge. See my last point below.
2. Leaders earn privileges and win endorsement by serving the best interests of the group.
If you’re a chimpanzee, your leadership is provisional, based on performance. The power given to you can be taken away.
Cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm found that chimpanzee leaders who become too proud or bossy, fail to redistribute foods and goods, or to close their deals with outsiders, quickly lose respect and support.
Franz deWaal, the highly-regarded primatologist, writes in Chimpanzee Politics, “The future new leader cannot impose his leadership on the group single-handed. His position is granted him, in part, by the other chimpanzees.”
Leadership, deWaal says, “resembles a mutual contract, with an emphasis on leadership rather than dominance (where) the privileges of high status are contingent upon services to the community.”
I wonder what percentage of business leaders view their positions as a privilege based on their willingness to serve the best interests of the group?
3. Young group members are not viewed as the most important members of a group.
In mammal societies, if the young don’t learn independence, they get eaten or left behind.
Children are taken care of to a point, but not coddled.
Among hyenas, after a successful hunt, kids eat last. Not because the young are unimportant, but because preserving the strength of the parents is paramount. Historically among humans, losing a parent or leader has been more catastrophic for the family than losing a child.
David Mech, one of the world’s most prominent wolf biologists, has written that on small kills, yearlings and other offspring “can only feed by deferring to the alpha pair and often by begging from them.”
If you’re a mammal kid, your job is to play, listen, learn, take what you can get and develop the ability to fend for yourself. Your parent’s job is to provide food and nurturing when you are very young, teach you how to hunt, protect you from internal and external predators, and grant you increasing independence.
Can any of these findings be helpful to human parents?
Or to business and institutional leaders?
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