Cover Story



Lead like a wild animal
Big 5 Leadership—Learning from Africa’s most fascinating animals.

BY KERSTIN PLEHWE

Domination and submission, survival of the fittest, constant adaption to change—the wilderness and the corporate world have many similarities. The more detailed the look into each world, its routines, rules and ways of communication, the more obvious it becomes how beneficial it would be if the corporate world could learn from nature. In some areas, such as product engineering, it is already happening, but in the area of personal development of leadership and teamwork skills this opportunity is still sadly missed.

Of course in most corporate areas there is no space for wilderness experiences, although it is highly recommended to regularly step out your personal comfort zone in order to reassess personal or corporate strategies, and open up for growth and leadership experience that no MBA program can ever deliver.

Experiencing Africa’s fascinating nature and of course its majestic Big 5, the human observer—usually accompanied by one or two experienced rangers—will be fascinated to find out the following five leadership skills that we could all easily transfer into our corporate world.

1. The art of teamwork
Lions, the so-called kings of the bush are not only a universal symbol for power and strength, they are masters in an area where every manager depends on: the quality of its team and the results of their work. And lions are masters of teamwork on all levels. Territories are held by several males in so-called coalitions. Working as a team makes it easier for them to fight against intruders, control larger territories, dispossess older lions or secure female territories, the basis for their survival.

Female teamwork is best displayed during hunting and it is clearly defined by the individual strengths of the team member. Whoever has the chance to witness their breathtaking, intelligent and efficient attacks will never again forget it. But also the diverse teamwork plays a vital role for Africa’s largest carnivore. While females do most of the hunting and share family responsibilities within the whole group, males will assist with big kills and protect their territory against intruders. For lions, the intra and inter-gender teamwork secures long-term survival and success. Bringing this example into your corporate area you ask yourself: Where can the teamwork in my company be optimized and is everybody aware of the benefits of an increased level of partnership with colleagues and the focus towards the outside-of-the-pride-enemy instead of the inside-of-the-company different department or colleague?

2. Focus— the power of targeting
Another fascinating and impressive quality often observed in the bush is the outstanding ability of animals to focus on their prey. Be it a lion, leopard, cheetah or bateleur eagle, their ability to focus sharply on one and only one target is worth thinking about as a human. In the corporate world—but also in the private area—multi-tasking is the standard. We listen to the radio while we drive the car, read our emails while we are in meetings. Africa’s predators narrow down their sight and energy to the most important thing in that second, securing food for their survival. Observing this behavior, it should be no surprise that many Asian meditation techniques teach methods to remain in the moment, which gives you maximum effectiveness. The western hemisphere managers can learn both from Africa and Asia and in that process not only reduce the ratio of burnout and stress but also increase the productivity and results of the whole company.

3. The prerequisites of speed
The fastest land mammal is the cheetah. Within 90 seconds they are in full speed of up to 70 miles/hour and every detail of their body, (e.g. their long legs, small heads with streamlined ears, large lungs) are perfectly designed for it. Their entire body is built for speed. They don’t carry any extra bulk…in opposite to us corporate people and organizations. The older we get, the more weight we usually carry and our spine gets less flexible. The cheetah’s spine stays flexible all its life; a great role model for any corporation to rethink and reevaluate what hinders them to move faster. We all know about the necessity for speed in highly competitive global marketplaces and also that the level of speed increases everywhere, be it in the media, social developments or the spread of diseases in a connected world. But the question is: How well are we equipped as leaders, as companies, as people? Do we carry extra bulk and how can we get rid of it?

4. The wisdom of the elephants
The leaders of elephant herds can often be seen doing nothing, as if they are frozen from one second to another. To the human eyes, it is unclear as to what is taking place, but it could potentially be our biggest leadership take-away from Africa. In those regular moments of stillness, the lead cow uses her senses to the fullest. She becomes aware of the position and movement of the group, its surroundings and gets in touch with each individual group member on an energetic level. What a powerful leadership tool! Transferring this observation for your personal use in the corporate world you could regularly, (e.g. at the beginning of every meeting), refrain from any activity for a couple of seconds, focus on the group, the energy in the room and your own physical condition. You will undoubtedly find out it makes a BIG difference!

5. Leopards—The hidden champions of flexibility

Leopards are not only among the most beautiful animals of Africa, they are also the ultimate opportunists, adapting themselves to every change in habitat that might happen. Leopards are flexible in every way imaginable. They are excellent runners and climbers, with the ability to attack from the ground and from trees, and hunt at night or during the day. One leopard was found in an abandoned football stadium living with two cubs eating garbage and chasing pets from the neighborhood. So a leopard-based take-away for every corporate person is: How flexible and adaptable are we as leaders, and how do our organizations adjust to change?

Now, not everybody has to go to Africa to rethink his or her leadership qualities, although regularly stepping out of one’s comfort zone is something recommended to anybody, especially to leaders loaded up with daily tasks and routines. Let’s not forget: Routines kill creativity. And creativity is something we urgently need to re-inject into our corporate lives in order to remain successful in a changing marketplace. So whether you use a tent in Africa or an igloo in the Arctic for a short time: Beyond your desk and your comfort zone is what life and leadership is about and that you can and should reimport into your daily life.

Kerstin Plehwe is a bestselling author and international speaker based in Berlin, Germany who helps people and organizations to be courageous, excellent and innovative. For more than 15 years, she has advised global players as well as top executives and politicians. Kerstin´s out of comfort zone experience was to become a Ranger in South Africa´s Kruger Park. She is available to speak on topics such as leadership, diversity, change and personal excellence. For more information please visit www.kerstinplehwe.com.