Sunday, November 29, 2009

Five Things Giraffes Teach Us About Leadership

Dawn on the Serengeti. The plains are mostly silent, save for the cackling and snarling of a group of hyenas, still hidden in shadow, competing for scraps from last night's kill. The sun erupts over the horizon, gathering strength as it prepares to sear the parched grasslands.   In the distance, a familiar silhouette makes its languid and graceful way to a stand of leafy acacia trees.

The giraffe. Earth's tallest land animal, it is slender and beautiful, herbivorous and social. And it has a few things to teach us about leadership:
  1. You already stand out from the crowd; take advantage of it.
    Leaders get noticed, sometimes even before they become leaders. The giraffe accomplishes this with his long legs and even longer neck, whereas you, unless you are 18 feet tall and weigh 3000 pounds, are going to have to rely on the 3 "C"s of the developing leader: competence, confidence, and communication. If you have these talents, you already stand out; you may as well acknowledge that and act on it.

  2. Sometimes you just have to dive right into things.
    The birth of a giraffe is one of the wonders of nature: the newborn falls about six feet from his mother to the ground! From that point he has only about half an hour to find his footing: while giraffes aren't normally sought by predators, a shaky calf makes a prime target. Like the newborn calf, leaders don't always have the benefit of preparation or training for every situation in which they find themselves. The giraffe reminds us that even after a tough beginning, we need to adjust rapidly to avoid a potentially much harsher fate.

  3. Never forget that others are relying on you.
    The giraffe obviously has a view of its surroundings that is unavailable to other animals. However, when the giraffe is at a watering hole, it has to splay its front legs rather awkwardly to reach down to take a drink, a position that leaves it quite vulnerable to alligators and other predators. That is why the giraffes do not all drink at once; as some are drinking, others are watching, ready to alert the herd if danger is nearby. Even other animals will take a cue from the giraffes and head for safer ground if the big herbivores are startled.

    Likewise, our teams are watching us closely for hints of trouble ahead. Leaders have to keep in mind that their responses to developments within the enterprise are always being observed, and remember that they have a responsibility, not only to lead their teams away from danger, but also to avoid sending false signals that could cause distraction and anxiety.

  4. Remain above the fray.
    Not too many predators will take a shot at landing a giraffe for lunch. The animal is simply too big, and its kicks too powerful; there are simpler choices on the menu. Well, the Serengeti and the boardroom have something in common: a tendency towards eliminating the weaker members of the herd. As a leader, your position could make you a target: arm yourself with a history of successful efforts and a reputation for keeping yourself above petty political squabbles, and you will encourage would-be spoilers to find easier targets.

  5. Acquire rewards that are out of reach to others.
    The whole point of the giraffe's size and specialized anatomy is to enable it to reach and enjoy the leaves of the thorny acacia tree. Not only is much of this foliage to be found far above the ground; it is also protected by enormous, pointy thorns, which the giraffe easily avoids by using its impressive tongue. 

    Similarly, through their own unique natures, leaders are equipped to reach unusual rewards: mentoring a team member and seeing her advance, leading an important project to a successful conclusion, or making decisions that have an impact on the company, its customers, and its employees. And, yes, sometimes the money's good*, too. :)

Sure, taking leadership lessons from animals, even beautiful and exceptional animals, could be considered odd. Then again, in the martial arts we find a centuries-old principle of learning from the natural fighting styles of the tiger, crane, leopard, snake, and other animals. Studying these animals has provided inspiration for some pretty incredible martial arts feats over the years;  perhaps the giraffe can do the same for our practice of leadership.

Got any other examples of animal-inspired leadership lessons?  Share them by clicking on the "Comments" link below.


Like giraffes as much as I do?  You can see them up close and personal - and even feed them! - at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, one of my favorite places.

Also, for a very funny take on the giraffe, see this Saturday Night Live video short (which is unfortunately preceded by a 30-second ad, but it's worth the wait).

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All photos above are licensed for reuse. No endorsement is implied. Attributions:
Drinking giraffe: / CC BY-SA 2.0


Andy said...

That Giraffe clip was laugh out loud funny. Excellent way to end the work day.

E. Scott Menter said...

"We take to the air on the leathery wings of a bat." Really, you just can't top that.