Sunday, 28 September 2008

Animal Instincts

At the start of my Brilliant Leadership workshops I’ll often ask delegates to compare their preferred leadership style and management approach with members of the animal kingdom. Before you read the rest of this article you might like to do the same by reflecting on the following question for a moment or two:

Which animal best mirrors your own leadership style and why?

Perhaps not surprisingly one of the most popular choices is a lion, the king of the jungle. The lion rules his territory by dominating those around him. Nobody messes with a lion. Male lions are also great delegators; they eat, they sleep and they mate while the lioness takes care of everything else. Interestingly, very few female delegates choose the lion as the animal that best reflects their leadership style and by the end of the workshop, many of those who have chosen a lion have changed their minds. Specifically, a lion tends to represent an autocratic management style, leading through fear rather than co-operation.

More surprising to me are the number of delegates who choose a horse as the best reflection of their leadership style. The reasons normally focus on the fact that horses are strong, quick and graceful. They can be both independent and operate in a herd and can work hard when they need to while preferring a relaxed and carefree existence most of the time. I’m not so sure what this says about the leadership style of those delegates who elect for the horse, perhaps they are leaders who seek an easy life but can work hard and as part of a team when the pressure is on.

Some delegates have maybe been influenced by the ‘Lessons from Geese’ video otherwise it is hard to imagine that a Goose would spring to mind as reflecting key leadership behaviour. Geese of course, are great team players but a flock of geese doesn’t have an obvious leader. But then perhaps that is the point these delegates are making. Allow the team to manage themselves and they will find a way of working together synergistically just like geese do.

Another popular choice is the dolphin. Delegates who choose the dolphin are quick to point out that they are very intelligent animals with great communication skills. They are by and large friendly creatures but can become hostile when under threat. It is certainly my experience that brilliant leaders are also great communicators but I’m not so sure that there are too many geniuses amongst them. The genius of brilliant leadership probably has more to do with surrounding yourself with experts who help you do a great job.

One of my personal favourites is the eagle, particularly to reflect the behaviour and traits of brilliant strategic leaders. Eagles spend much of their time at a great height surveying the big picture but then they spot something of interest and with their great eyesight are able to hone in and look at the detail. Based on this detail, they are very decisive and swift to strike before stepping back again and looking at the big picture. Eagles are also very protective of their young while encouraging independence from an early age. Much of this behaviour sums up brilliant leadership. You need to have a view of the big picture while being able to selectively drill down and look at the detail. Brilliant leaders certainly need to be very decisive and often, swift to act. The idea of encouraging the independence of your staff based on effective coaching is also very positive leadership behaviour.

The chameleon though just pips the eagle for me, although not an animal that is often identified at the beginning of the workshop. Chameleons of course, adapt and change according to their situation and environment. And this is precisely what brilliant leaders need to do. There are times when staff need an autocratic leader and other times when they need an arm around their shoulder or perhaps just left alone to get on and do a great job. The intuitive ability to adapt and change according to each specific situation is often the hallmark of brilliant leaders.

Perhaps you thought of one of the animals above or maybe you had another idea like one of my delegates who put up a brave defence of why she had selected a mouse. The herding instincts of elephants, the communal nature of gorillas and the wisdom of owls also feature regularly among choices of the workshop participants.

But of course, there aren’t any right or wrong answers. Leadership is not an exact science and it is not my place to try and make it so. There are common behaviours and traits exhibited by many brilliant leaders and I see my job as being one of a tour guide. I can point out behaviours or actions and the effect they are having or might have in certain situations just like a tour guide can point out what you might like to look at. But whether you choose to look or not and how you apply what you see is entirely up to you.

At the end of my Brilliant Leadership workshops delegates revisit the same question. Around sixty percent have usually changed their opinion as to which animal’s behaviour and traits they wish to mirror in terms of their own leadership style.

The reality is that there is not a single leadership style or management approach that will work. Brilliant leaders develop a toolbox that they can dip into depending on the situation they find themselves in. And that is the instinct which needs to be developed.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

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