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Tag Archives: leadership in action

Leadership lessons from a penguin

In the past, I’ve been inspired to blog about Leadership lessons from a mountain and Leadership lessons from a sea turtle, and many of you were motivated enough to add to these lists. Stirred by a visit to the Calgary Zoo, here is a list of what leadership lessons a penguin can offer.

PenguinsThe penguin is a bird that does not fly. With feathers and a beak, it looks like a bird. And in most behavioural aspects, it acts like a bird. Except of course in this one very significant characteristic … that it cannot fly. But what the penguin lacks in flight power it makes up in aquatic grace. In the study of bird evolution, paleontologists have determined that many eons ago, the ancient predecessor to today’s modern penguin could fly. But over millions of years, penguins’ wings evolved into fins as they adapted to marine life in the Antarctic Ocean. And if you’ve ever watched penguins swim, you know that they perform with as much elegance underwater as their avian relatives do in the sky.

Two leadership lessons from penguins

The successful existence of the penguin offers at least two apt metaphors for leaders. Continue reading

Influential authority vs positional authority (and the chimpanzee Mike)

The topic of influential authority versus positional authority comes up often in my discussions with leaders.  Not long ago though, it came up in an unexpected context.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Dr. Birute Galdikas, renowned primatologist and one of the world’s leading experts in orangutans.  Just as Jane Goodall did for chimpanzees and Dian Fossey did for mountain gorillas, Dr. Birute has devoted her life to learning about and protecting orangutans.  As a (not-so-secret) all-things natural science geek all my life, meeting and conversing with her was definitely a bucket list item for me!  When Dr. Birute learned that I run a leadership development consultancy, she started drawing parallels between primate behaviour and leadership, and shared several behavioural examples and stories.

Mike, the chimpanzee, and his rising status

influential authority

One story in particular stuck with me, likely because her telling of it was so funny.  She told me about Mike, a chimpanzee that had been observed by Dr. Jane Goodall for many years.  Mike was a young male in a troupe, and quite submissive to all the other males.  That is, until one day when he accidentally discovered how he could intimidate all the other chimpanzees.  He started batting a gasoline can around, and realized quickly that all the loud thuds and irritating banging noises made the other chimpanzees nervous and apprehensive of him.  With some practice, Mike was able to run down the narrow forest Continue reading

A leadership lesson from how owls hunt

leadership lessonNature abounds with lessons, and I am always fascinated to discover that many of those lessons offer insights into leadership.  I was recently reading about owls, and I was excited to discover yet another leadership lesson.

Did you know that owls don’t hunt by sight or smell, they hunt primarily by sound?  And nature has given them a very sophisticated and elegant way of ensuring that they can catch prey to survive and thrive.

The ears of many species of owls are asymmetrical, with one ear slightly higher but directed downwards and the other somewhat lower but facing upward. As a result, sounds that originate from below eye level are heard louder in the left ear, while those that come from above are heard more clearly in the right.  The differences in volume and frequency allow to owl to find its prey, even in complete darkness.  The owl’s success lies in its ability to pay attention to what is happening both below and above it.

And therein lies the leadership lesson

Which is not unlike what it takes to be successful as a leader.  Leaders have to pay attention to what is happening both below and above them. Continue reading

A leadership lesson from monarch butterflies

monarch butterfliesEvery fall, millions of monarch butterflies leave their summer homes in Canada and the northern United States and travel over 3,000 miles south to their winter home in the mountains of central Mexico.

Even though the journey is long and arduous, instinctively, the butterflies know that they need to find a safe place to spend the winter.  This makes sense.  But what is very unusual is how the butterflies make their spring return trip to their breeding and feeding territories in Canada.

You see, the individual butterflies that leave the north are not the ones that will return.  While favourable air currents permit the monarchs to make their way south to Mexico relatively quickly, the return trip to northern climes takes much longer.  In fact, because the life cycle of a butterfly is just 5-7 weeks, individual monarchs stop for breeding and feeding cycles, and eventually they die before completing the journey.

However, their offspring continue the journey. Eventually, it takes the monarchs four to five generations to actually make the entire trip back up to Canada.

We still don’t know why …

Science is still deciphering how an individual monarch knows to return to the summer breeding and feeding grounds from several generations ago.  Is it Continue reading

Leadership lessons from ants!

As regular readers of the blog know, I am continually inspired by the lessons in leadership that come to us from the animal kingdom.  In the past, I’ve written about bald eagles, sea otters, goldfish, and penguins, among many others.  Today’s leadership lessons come to us from ants!

Ants don’t admit defeat

Have you ever watched an ant carry what appears to be a gargantuan load?  Science indicates that ants can actually carry ten to fifteen times their body weight.  And they do – repeatedly – in order to provide for themselves and their nestmates.  Which got me thinking … if ants aren’t daunted by the sheer magnitude of what they sometimes have to carry, is there a lesson there for us as leaders?

In the workplace, we are often faced with what seem to be insurmountable obstacles in our leadership roles – looming deadlines, challenging employees, missed opportunities, apparently unattainable targets – which could, if we let them, cause us to give up and admit defeat.  Continue reading

Leadership lessons from the American bald eagle

leadership lessons from the bald eagleI am continually amazed by the insightful leadership lessons that can be learned from the animal kingdom; in the past I’ve written about sea otters, goldfish, long-nosed bats, Canada geese, and penguins.  Recently, I had the opportunity to have a close-up interaction with an American bald eagle at a bird rescue sanctuary (I took this photo on the right), and not surprisingly, there were leadership lessons to be had here as well.  Here are two interesting parallels between bald eagles and exceptional leaders.

The ability to stay high AND come down low

Eagles tend to spend most of their time in elevated locations.  When they are hunting, they soar high in the sky.  When they are resting, they look for the loftiest spot they can find in trees, craggy rocks, or even rooftops.  They can stay at higher altitudes because they have excellent vision.  Continue reading

Leadership lessons from a sea turtle

SeaTurtleIn September 2012, during a visit to Mt. McKinley in Alaska, I got into a whimsical discussion with a local guide about what leadership advice a mountain might offer, if it could speak. Just recently, during some “up close and personal” swimming time with green sea turtles in Hawai’i, I somehow ended up in a similar conversation –what leadership advice would sea turtles give us, if they could talk? What leadership lessons can we learn from turtles?  Here’s my list: Continue reading

Leadership lessons from a mountain

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit Denali National Park in Alaska and get up-close-and-personal with Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America.  Now, spectacular mountains are nothing new to me; after all I make my home in Calgary, Alberta, Canada which is nestled in the foot of the Canadian Rockies.  But Mt. McKinley was unique not only in its height, but also because of the way it stands out amongst the other topography around it.  And given that Mt. McKinley’s peak is shrouded in cloud at least two-thirds of the time, we were especially fortunate to visit on a day when the skies were clear and the view fantastic.

Continue reading

Should every leader have a “sweep”?

Last week I blogged about my unfortunate bicycling mishap on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California – Are you leading from the front or the rear? – in which I realized that leadership wasn’t just about going ahead and guiding the way, but also about staying back and supporting those who needed help.  It got a conversation started, and Ron Umbsaar (see the Comments under the blog post) told me about how white-water and river canoeing groups always have not only a “lead” boat but also a “sweep” boat.  The sweep is another experienced person whose role is to bring up the rear and make sure that the team stays together.  Which got me thinking …

Shouldn’t every leader have a sweep – another experienced team member who assists the leader by following behind the group – to help team members who falter, and to get them back on track?  I think this person should ideally be a senior experienced team member who is known and respected by the others.  But perhaps most importantly, I think the leader needs to identify this person to others as a resource, a second-in-command, or a “senior”, so they know where to go when they need help.  What do you think?  Good idea or not?

Are you leading from the front or from the rear?

A couple of weeks ago, I bicycled across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. It was a unique experience, marred only by a minor mishap that occurred partway during the trip. The busy pathway was neatly divided down the middle with a line separating the lane for foot-traffic from that for wheeled-traffic, a system that was working quite well … until a young boy darted out into the bicycle lane. Not a veteran cyclist, I panicked, hit my brakes, lost my balance, and promptly tumbled over and hit my head on a concrete abutment. When I fell, those who were ahead of me had no awareness of what had just happened behind them. In fact, it wasn’t until about five minutes later when the rest of my group stopped for a photo opportunity that they realized I was missing. Indeed, the family of the young child who triggered the accident were also completely oblivious as they continued on with their morning stroll. It was the three city workers who were walking behind me who stopped and helped me stand, then sat me down and brought me water, finally getting me up and on my way once again. In the good news department, there was no major harm done, not even to my head (courtesy of my riding helmet). But unfortunately, for the next two weeks, scrapes and bruises on my knees and shins were a sore reminder of my not-so-excellent adventure.

It wasn’t till several days later (when the aches began to subside and the bruises started to fade) that I reflected back on this incident and got to thinking about what role a leader should play on the team. By its very definition, you would expect a leader to lead, to be out in front, to blaze the trail, to be the shining beacon lighting the way to your destination. But the problem with being out front is that you can easily miss what’s happening in the rear. For me, the true leaders in this situation were those who were behind me, there to pick me up and dust me off when I fell, and get me back on the road to finish my journey.

Where are you leading from – the front or the rear?  What about others around you – have they made this important distinction? Tell us what you think.