Leadership and nature

Lions, bees, and starlings

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Nature is wise, and she can teach us a lot if we just take the time to observe her carefully. Has it happened to you that some things in life do not make sense until we see it happening in nature? That happens to me very often.

In the last few months, I’ve read a lot about leadership styles. Some of these books were Ann Betz and Karen Kimsey-House´s “Integration“, Robert Anderson and William Adams´ “Mastering Leadership“, “5 dysfunctions of a team” by Patrick Lencioni, “Tribes” by Seth Godin, amongst others. Each of them, a great inspiration.

And each of them filled with logic and common sense of leadership’s best practices. Mostly because they often see and try to understand people by acknowledging that they are human beings with needs and dreams.

But when I lift my face from the books, I see that real life companies still have a long path to walk to be in a place where the best practices can be applied. It is almost like science fiction or that they were written for a different reality.

I suppose it is just a matter of perspective. Have you ever see the following happening in your own company or others that you might be close to:

  • Managers demanding results, but being the first to reject ownership of the project.
  • Supervisors scolding people in front of the teams due to a missed step in a process. Even when results were not impacted by the situation in any way.
  • Leaders who establish a general vision, but forget to provide what’s needed to grow the team so they are ready to take over the new challenges to overcome to achieve the vision established.
  • Teams that understand the objectives, make on-time deliveries but have a terrible environment that ends up killing the member’s morale, innovation, and shine.

It’s as if common sense was not so common after all, and didn’t make sense. So, in order to understand them better, I went back to our very wise nature and see what would I find… this is what I got:

 

 

Lions

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Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work in a small town on the border between Mexico and the USA.  Everybody that worked there was very kind and friendly, even the lady that was going to act as my manager welcomed me with a beautiful smile. At the end of the day, I remember talking to one of my colleagues, expressing how surprised I was of the warm welcome from the lady with the beautiful smile. When I was done he only said:

“He who sees the lion does not run the same as the one who hears him roar”

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Lions are territorial animals, they have a loud and powerful roar. They inhabit places where it is common for water to be scarce, living in groups called “pride”.

These pride of lions consists of a dominant male, hunting lionesses, playful puppies, and the occasional adolescent organized in a hierarchical structure. For a lion to be “promoted” to an Alpha male position, he must go through an individual effort in the form of a duel with other males that also seek that position.

But, why would they risk their lives for a position? In a world where you need to exchange security for food, it is quite convenient to show who is the strongest with a great roar and a fierce battle.

Although they are considered social animals, they are not very empathetic to each other.

If we were on safari with Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), he would tell us that they seem to only be seeking to satisfy the first steps of his pyramid of needs:

 

 

And if on the same safari trip we had James McGregor (1918-2014) sitting by our side, he would tell us that if they were people the type of leadership that they seem to be using is called Transactional (also known as Institutional), because it is based on a relationship between supervisor, subordinate, and the transactions they exchange.

If we were to hear this kind of leadership style, we would hear something like the following:

  • Achieve the goals and I will pay your salary, I could even give you a bonus if you hit the target before the deadline.
  • If you stay for 5 more hours I will compensate them. When would you get them back? well, we can discuss this in the morning I need to leave now.
  • We will not tolerate that you arrive late to the meeting. It is a motive to take you off the project, it doesn’t matter that there is a personal valid reason behind it.
  • Training will only be provided if it has a direct and positive impact on the expected overall results of the company.
  • The process is quite clear! ¿what part of “Follow all the steps” you don’t understand?

For it to exist, rewards and sanctions are necessary. And even if it is difficult to think of a place where it can be applied, we can see it all around. Specifically in:

  • Hostile environments, in the middle of a crisis or emergency that demand immediate results. As in a war or where companies need to establish processes that ensure the final quality.
  • Where failure involves a high risk. An example of this would be a production line.
  • Places where innovation is not a priority and where time along with progress in technology do not have a very large impact on results.
  • Where the focus on processes and results reigns. Making the reaction to problems a way of life.

The disadvantages of this leadership style are:

  • As in a herd, there is not much empathy. The human factor is constantly forgotten, and supervisors only interfere when things are not going well or when the reward is dealt out.
  • Since the only things that matters are results and process, it becomes impersonal. Not everyone likes to be a piece of a machine that can be changed when it is not working optimally.
  • There is low loyalty since it only lasts while the exchange does or while a better offer comes by.
  • It is easy to point fingers and delegate the responsibility:
    • From the manager to the employees: “They did not do it right”
    • And even from the employees to their manager: “She did not give us the instructions well”

Some advantages:

  • It provides immediate results, which are not sustainable over time.
  • It is easy to join teams as isolated cells, since there is a common enemy: the manager, the company, hr, etc.
  • The decisions are a single person responsibility, which benefits the time to take them and the change of direction.

Unfortunately, this kind of leadership entitles people to be abusive to each other. Sometimes it is celebrated.

It turned out that my colleague was right, the day I met my manager’s roar I ran faster than ever before. The atmosphere that was created in that office was very heavy. Each morning waking up and going to the office became tougher and tougher, I was not excited to arrive and listen to the roars and constant fights for power. One day I decided that I had learned enough of what I did not want to replicate whenever I become a manager, my limit was overcome and I resigned.

How many times have you seen people endure bad treatment at the workplace, just to keep it? Just because it is the one who pays the best in the industry. Sometimes I wonder if the confusion between what is really necessary to live and what is only a whim leads us to continue tolerating this type of behaviors at the workplace.

Even when this kind of leadership was the base for everything we can see and touch in business, a pride of lions is not for me.

Can you imagine what the world be if this kind of leadership was not the only option at the beginning of the industrial era?

Do you live within a herd or you see the lions in the distance from the safari?

 

In subsequent posts, I will talk about another 2 types of leadership: Transformational and Relational. Stay tuned.

 

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