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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

The CEO Champions in Wildlife: Nature Teaches Leadership

How often in daily life do we use metaphors with animals or plants to refer to special virtues or abilities? For example, "being eagle-eyed", "being as cunning as a fox", or even "from little acorn mighty oaks grow."


As always, folk wisdom allows us to look at the world from other perspectives and provide us with some food for thought, especially if we stop for a moment to understand the meaning of that phrase and where it comes from. Now, the examples I have given are quite simple, but they are enough to indicate to us how not so difficult it is to find a source of inspiration when we need it.


The same paradigm can also be brought into leadership, especially when we consider the myriad facets that this concept brings and the multitude of examples we can see in nature. For example, the vast majority of you will have already associated the wolf with the word leadership.

A collage of pictures of animals and plants
Plants and animals incorporate millennia-old leadership learnings

We humans often associate leadership with a position or role, but nature shows us that leadership is based on an ecosystem of collaboration, adaptability, and awareness. It is a dance between leading and following, between strength and vulnerability, between being resilient and adapting.


Looking at the animal and plant worlds, we can glean lessons that are not theoretical, but essentially practical and have brilliantly stood the test of time. What we do not see today, in fact, has been filtered through natural selection. As leaders, in both our personal and professional lives, if we can understand and draw from these success stories, we can address our challenges more effectively and lead with a vision and purpose that aligns not only with organizational or personal goals but with the essence of life itself.


In this post, we will enjoy exploring some simple examples found in nature from which we can draw inspiration to be better leaders, toward ourselves as well as others.


Self-awareness

We could only start here. After all, in many other posts, I have reiterated how self-awareness is the starting point for successful leadership. There are quite a number of animals that can become aware of who they really are. One example is the magpie, one of the few non-mammals shown to recognize itself in the mirror. The magpie is able to engage in self-directed behavior (i.e., "the process whereby the subject is in an active position with respect to the knowledge and experiences it experiences"-source Wikipedia) and to recognize if there are external elements on its body, acting to remove them. This is why the magpie is the perfect example of self-awareness and the capacity for self-observation and self-improvement. It is clear that for human beings problem is not to figure out if the shirt we have is dirty, but rather to identify our weaknesses and blind areas of our behavior, putting in place concrete actions to improve those aspects.

An European Magpie is on a branch, looking up
European Magpies are highly self-aware

Emotional intelligence

Yes, even among animals there may be examples of emotional intelligence, certainly not as developed as it may be in the human race. Take, for example, the elephant. Besides being able to mature self-awareness like the magpie, the elephant is able to have empathy for other specimens of the same species. If an elephant is in danger, others rush to help it. Or, the whole herd gathers around an infant and welcomes it with displays of joy. The elephant's social skills, another characteristic of emotional intelligence, are notoriously developed. Elephants live in herds with solid matriarchal hierarchical structures, even quite complicated ones. Their language, moreover, consists of the sounds emitted through the trunk, body movements, and even seismic signals. Another element to be observed in elephants is self-control. They are notoriously patient animals, especially when dealing with younger specimens. Finally, they know how to fuel their motivation through curiosity, problem-solving skills, and determination. In short, if you need to understand how to increase your emotional intelligence, observe and study an elephant!

Picture of a herd of elephants is near a pond
Elephants are the champions of emotional intelligence in the animal kingdom

Adaptability

The best example of adaptability is not the chameleon, but bacteria. For one thing, bacteria are everywhere. They adapt to the conditions of whatever environment they are in and evolve in a way that ensures the proliferation of other specimens incredibly fast. This, for example, makes them immune even to antibiotics especially if the treatment has a prolonged duration over time. Resistance is easily transmitted from one bacterium to another through the direct passage of genetic material. In short, unfortunately for human beings, bacteria are definitely synonymous with adaptation. We, like them, must learn to adapt even in difficult situations, finding ways to thrive. After all, adaptability (and curiosity) is precisely one of those traits that allowed homo sapiens to evolve and get where we are today.

A microscope image of bacteria
Unfortunately for us, bacteria are very adaptable

Resilience

The date palm is our champion of resilience, and I'm not the only one saying that. In fact, the FAO has designated this species as the symbol of civilization and resilience. The tree manages to proliferate in the most hostile environments on earth, such as desert areas where water is scarce and the soil is particularly salty. Despite this, the date palm not only survives prohibitive conditions, but thrives and bears fruit, providing sustenance for animals and people living in North Africa and the Middle East who exploit the tree in its entirety: fruit, leaves, trunk, and seeds. Another characteristic makes the palm a perfect example of resilience: even if a tree is damaged, its shoots can be replanted ensuring continued growth and new generations of trees. Resilience is precisely the ability to absorb a shock and get right back on track, adapting immediately to new conditions. I think few human beings can consider themselves as resilient as a date palm.

A close-up picture on date palm tree's leaves and fruits
Date palm trees are able to thrive even in harsh conditions

Cooperation and teamwork

Many of you will have seen the Disney movie "Finding Nemo" and will remember that Marlin and Nemo are two clownfish living in an anemone. Even in reality, the relationship between these kinds of fish and marine invertebrates is the perfect example of cooperation and teamwork. First, the two species protect each other. The anemone is poisonous to clownfish predators, and the latter defend the anemone from attacks by fish such as butterflyfish. There is also great agreement on nutrition, as the clownfish eat the remains of the victims of the anemone, which in turn benefits from the waste produced by its hosts. And if the clownfish provides cleaning services, the anemone provides them with the perfect safe nest. In short, there is great chemistry among the species that inhabit coral reefs. A chemistry that we often-or almost always-have difficulty finding within our team or community. Yet, we all know very well that everyone could benefit from more synergistic teamwork.

A picture of two clownfish swimming among a purple anemone tentacles
Clownfish and anemones are the perfect examples of cooperation and teamwork

I think this list could go on and on. For example, the caterpillar that later becomes a butterfly is synonymous with transformation. Or, rainforests are the perfect example of self-sustainability and careful use of resources. The goal of this post, however, is not to write an encyclopedia of animals and plants and highlight what makes them exemplary from a leadership and personal leadership point of view. I leave that job to people who, in this area, certainly know more than I do, such as David Attenborough.


Instead, the goal is to offer a different perspective on leadership and what it takes to be a good leader. A perspective that starts precisely from observing nature. Because, after all, Mother Nature has been shaping its leadership champions through evolution for millions of years, perfecting strategies and systems that have achieved great levels of harmony, growth, and resilience.


The call is clear: we should lead as nature does, with balance, foresight, and an unwavering commitment to the greater good.


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