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Lessons in leadership from the savannah

I had the privilege of spending four days in the South African bush recently. The occasion was a leadership development course together with a group of business leaders from Denmark. Although the purpose wasn’t leisure, for me as a wildlife junkie, there are certainly worse things to do than spend three hours a day on safari!

The course was facilitated by Pete, Mick and Steve from Leading with Humanity. Their mission was to force us to reflect on leadership in business through the power of nature. They knew we’d be put way outside of our comfort zones; that we would feel vulnerable and insecure. And they loved it!

But it’s not only the boundary-breaking exercises that make you take a close look at leadership behaviour. Even more telling was the immersion in nature. Witnessing the wild’s dilemmas first hand is a transcendental experience that reveals an honest reality. The competitive coexistence of the vast array of species in the bush is a worthy aspiration for all walks of life. Learning from it will surely benefit any leader’s performance.

In the north of the Kwazulu-Natal region, it was the perfect setting to experience the savannah. The only animals that couldn’t roam freely in our camp area were the really tall ones. Apparently, elephants have a great fascination for building (de)construction, so they are kept out by elephant wire. That of course also keeps out the great gentle giant, the giraffe. As for everything else, the fresh tracks appearing worryingly close to our tents every morning were a clear indication that many different animals took their opportunity to investigate the camp during the night.

Connectivity

What hit home first was just how connected all life is in the bush. What happens in one place – and to one animal – has implications on everything else – animals as well as plants. (If you’ve seen the Lion King, you’ll know I’m talking about the Circle of Life.)

Each species can live a sustainable, healthy existence. In Africa, they call it Hlathini – the balance of the bush. Yes, predators hunt other animals and need to kill to survive, but within the larger ecosystem, there is healthy coexistence. It’s a powerful reminder that we are all actors within various ecosystems. We have greater or lesser degrees of influence on the forces at play around us, and understanding these forces can help us to contribute positively and to the best of our potential.

Balance of power

The lion is said to be the King of Beasts, but is it always the most influential? As we saw a single bull elephant charge towards a pride of lions, it became clear that the balance of power can change. The Lion King was no match for the elephant’s determination and mindset. Yet at another time, perhaps it would be the single elephant that was vulnerable.

Lions running

As the elephant, buffalo and lions gathered around the ‘pan’ for water, each kept a watchful eye on the ‘competition’. But for the time being at least, they were existing in harmony, sharing the resources that were necessary to keep them alive.

Elsewhere, alliances form, such as when the giraffes, zebra and impalas look out for each other as they graze on the savannah. Each benefits from a particular characteristic or skill of another to increase its chances of survival.

Very few individuals can exert significant power over others – the bull elephant, the strongest male lion, the dominant buffalo. But every single individual is important to the greater good and has an important role to play for the survival of the community. The symbolism is striking.

Whether it’s through a greater sense of teamwork, community, or respect for those with different abilities than our own, we are all reliant on each other.

No waste

Out in the savannah, nothing goes to waste. When an animal is killed, it will be the source of nutrition for many, not just the hunter. Of course the lion will have its share, but over time, all sorts of other animals will benefit from the kill – even the giraffe, which munches on the bones as a source of calcium.

This is in stark contrast to human behaviour. There was trash as far as the eye could see for the entire 400 km drive north from Durban. Yet its absence in the wild is striking. It’s a constant reminder of the sustainability and waste challenges that all people, let alone businesses, face.

Respect

Our excellent guides in the bush were the two rangers Wessel and Bruce. With deep wisdom and great skill, they guided us ‘city folk’ through the dangers of the world they know so well. In fact, they liked to talk about the safety of the bush. How can this be in a place where lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo walk freely?

elephant-chasing-lionsThe biggest lesson here is respect. As long as you respect the animals and their natural behaviour and can adapt your own behaviour accordingly, the chances of being harmed are low. Perhaps lower than in a stressed, overpopulated city? As the rangers said, animals are more predictable than people are. So if you do the right things at the right times, you can exist in harmony with them.

With the right amount of respect for your surroundings, it’s even possible to be on foot in the bush. (You would only do this accompanied by a qualified guide – and never at night!) It certainly heightens your senses and there is no room for complacency. There’s nothing quite like going eye-to-eye and sharing the same air with a large animal in the wilderness with no physical protection.

It’s experiences like these that put personal issues in perspective, helping you to focus on what’s really important. How often do we achieve this in our time at work? If we did, wouldn’t it improve our sense of quality of life, not to mention our own professional performance?

Through the eyes of others

Metaphors in business are a powerful way of helping leaders to see complex situations with more clarity. A concept exists in southern African called Ubuntu, which Nelson Mandela spoke of as “to do with one’s humanity being enriched by another’s”. Ubuntu was a big part of our time in Africa. My experiences would not have been so meaningful if they were just my own. Sharing the experience with the others in the group and being part of their experiences gave it greater significance and meaning.

For all of us, Ubuntu and the immersive experience of nature have become a powerful metaphor – not only for better business, but for a better life.

The power of the bush

To hear some of the bush’s amazing stories first hand from someone who has lived and worked in it all of his life, take a look at this TED Talk by Boyd Varty.

(Images by the author.)

 

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David Hoskin

I've helped B2B companies create and implement international marketing and communications strategies since 1999. I've been fortunate enough to work with some great companies and highly talented individuals during the years. But the game's changing fast. Although my aim is always to create pragmatic solutions that produce measurable results, there are always new challenges to overcome. I studied engineering and music and I have an Executive MBA (with Distinction) from Henley Business School, University of Reading (UK). Today, I'm a partner at B2B marketing agency cylindr and BBN International. Here on Integrated B2B, I want to share my personal opinions and perspectives on the changing face of B2B marketing. I hope you join in the conversation, too.

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