Leadership and Animal Analogies

They are NOT what is most commonly stated across the internet (including LinkedIn)


It seems people have forever used animal analogies to explain desired attributes and charateristics, and now in the 21st century we continue the practice, especially to explain what is needed to be an effecive “Leader”.

Talent experts and leadershipship development ‘gurus’ love the analogies. And these analogies can be very powrful and can bring about the change required to put someone onto the path of becoming a real Leader. Yet I believe many of these analogies are based on myth or stories that reflect a fear, a desire, an image that has promugated through the ages, for example “the courageous lion, King of the Jungle”, and these are wrong and can lead to the wrong attributes used in the wrong way.

Some of these advisors/experts even go as far as telling you what animal you or your team should emulate to be successful.  But many of these sound out of sync (at best), have not even considered the environment you may be working in. So before you jump in and decide which animal you are or want to emulate, make sure you understand what those animals really are good at and the environment they succeed within. Thinking and acting with the charactersitics and attributes of a lion will be pretty much useless when you are in a swamp – when in a swamp, you are at the mercy of the crocodiles.

So I will work through a range of animals and provide what I believe are their best traits, their weaker points and their optimum environment. And I will assume you will want it to be the “best of” example for each chosen animal. 

The Lion

The first I will look at is the proverbial “King of the jungle”. 

Historically Lions are portrayed as the symbol of power, bravery, courage, strength fearlessness and ferocity. Supposedly, these attributes are “the building block of success as a leader”.  Yet two questions immediately come to mind, are these really the attributes of a lion rather just what people have come to believe based on years of stories and fear of such a powerful beast, and are these really the attributes required for a leader. From my own knowledge and some research into lions; yes, lions are powerful and ferocious but they are not brave and courageous, nor fearless.  As to being the desired leadership attributes? Probably not in the way these attributes are often presented with their attached dialogue i.e. macho, gung-ho, take everything except prisoners.

There definitely are attributes of a lion that can support a Transformational Leader – in the right ‘habitat’.  I will give my list these at the end after I present a picture of a lion (not the idealised one).

Lions are unique in the cat species, being social and living in prides or coalitions (male only), although some – again, typically males – living as ‘nomads’ in pairs or alone.  Male nomads can spend many years wandering before gaining residence in a pride.  Each group lives a within well-defined area or range, preferring grassland, savanna, dense scrub or open woodland (not a Jungle).

The lion is the apex predator within their geographical zone, hunting both day and night. Lions generally walk for about two hours a day, eat for one and spend around 20 hours resting.  Males are usually on the fringes of the pride to protect it from other lions or competing predators, females are just as capable and willing to defend the pride but as males are bigger and larger and more powerful, they are better suited for this role.

Both males and females are very adept at hunting and catching prey, but when in a pride it is the females which do the strategizing and planning the tactics, males are often used as a distraction. They are not known for stamina so are better at ambush tactics and using the cover of darkness to achieve a kill rate of up to 30% (for singles it’s up to 19%). Once they have made their kill, the sequence of eating is biggest first, but there is still lots of squabbling over the food.

Lions will attempt to dominate other predators by stealing their kills (eating carrion and stealing actually makes up a large part of their diet), killing the offspring or if they are fast enough, killing the adults. And yet if given the opportunity other Predators will try to take out a lion or cubs, whilst elephants and buffalo will attempt to trample them.  And when close to water, lions become a food source for crocodiles.

Generally, lions die as a result of violence, either because of directly fighting with other lion, male infanticide by adult males taking over a pride or providing an opportunity for others after being wounded by another lion.

The lion is one of the most widely recognised animal symbols in human culture. It has been extensively depicted across all forms of art, literature and logos. The image of a healthy, alpha male lion has appeared as a symbol for strength and nobility in multiple cultures. Yes, lions are powerful, lions are impressive but they are not what is portrayed in these stories and promulgated by some “Leadership” gurus.

The attributes I see lions and good transformational leadership share are:

  1. Having a positive vision (although this could be said for every predator)
  2. The need for power – lions will not tolerate others trying to usurp their status as ‘apex predator’.
  3. Focused on achieving their goals – continually, even though they only have an average kill rate around 25%
  4. Ability to take reasonable risk – lions are usually well aware when to take a risk.  They are NOT brave, courageous or fearless – they are smart, they strategize. It’s about real risk, they hunt based on PvG (Pain vs Gain).

Other attributes include their ability to work as a team, and everyone has their skills (the most ferocious and powerful does not lead the hunt).

One attribute I struggle to find with the lion analogy is their abilty to focus on positive emotions and avoiding negative ones. This a primary Leadership trait, but for lions, although they are emotional, they only use emotion in their ‘downtime’ and with the data I have found so far, they do not have (or a need to focus on) ‘postive’ or ‘negative’ emotions.

Summary to be a “Lion”

So remember, if you use analogies such as ‘its a jungle out there’ or ‘its a real swamp’ having the attributes of a lion as a leader are probably NOT the attributes needed.

If you are you in an environment that it is fairly open/vast, has good ‘cover’, there is the opportunity to work ‘dark’ plus one that is cut-throat where you will be taken out by your own ‘species’ just because you are feeding from the same source or stepping on someone else’s turf, and there are multiple opportunists looking to take you down, then maybe the attributes and characteristics of a lion sound a good option – but avoid the misinformed ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ type BS.


What is COVID-19 Teaching Us

Two major lessons we have learnt in the last 4 months; we as humans do not have total control and dominion over our environment and that we need to look after each other. Are there some, if any, trying to go back the pseudo-comfortable, non-sustainable, non-agile pre-covid era?

Yes, business will return as it always has, some will have been in the right place and the right mindset, with the right product/service to make the most of a catastrophe, for the rest of us it is not so good. The question is, what has been learnt and are we putting these learnings into practice. Are we evolving as people, as businesses and societies to manage this return to business.

There will be a huge number of specific lessons for businesses but with a broad brush I propose that we should, as businesses, have learnt some generic, wide reaching lessons and be taking actions to update our processes and policies to reflect the new normal. The obvious ones that comes to mind:

  • How do we keep velocity up in the decision-to-implementation process? We had a LOT of noise and extended project time within business, with the discussions, budgeting, planning and execution. Yet when time was seen as critical because of the situation we got things over the line in months instead of years.
  • Have all the contracts been reviewed and updated for new, realistic and versatile SLAs/KPIs, termination triggers and with flexibility to cover unexpected events.
  • Have alternative sourcing protocols been instigated. Have supply lines been reviewed for potential outages and solutions agreed with suppliers.
  • BCP (Business Continuity Plans) – this is the document that for so long was only given lip-service. So… has a BCP been drafted and in place, covering many, broad scenarios.
  • Have HR and WHS policies and systems been put in place that will ensure the safety and welfare yet effectiveness of all employees. Is WFH a new paradigm within the business? Has the working “space” been reviewed?
  • Cyber-tech. Any lessons here? Was software and hardware adequate (also the current trend for security breaches must be included). Did you manage without issues? Is this area a major part of your new BCP – what happens if there was a software COVID, a major, self-propagating virus that had no “vaccine” yet far more contagious than we have seen to date (rest assured, someone will be working on designing one). Most could recover but the outcome for too many could be fatal.
  • Psychological impacts and fallout from a major incident how are they going to be handled and addressed. People will be anxious and more focused on self-preservation (jobs and lives). Will there be an avoidance of risk, will this add value or limit the ability of your business to survive. Plus, the fallout will not just included employees, there will be multiple stresses placed on everyone within society, including suppliers, customer and investors. All will now have their own priorities.

Those are some of the lessons that I can quickly think of to date, there will be more as the economy improves for as history shows, the economy will not return like the slow turning of a tap, it will come in surges and waves.

So you survived the initial downturn, do you have systems and people in place who can work with agility and velocity to keep up with a variable, unknown return.

There will be changes in all areas of life, especially now as we have a second wave of COVID-19 rolling through many countries, reinforcing the fact that we are not as invincible as we thought and yet we are capable of stepping up when we have too.

Overall lesson: do we now know HOW and WHEN to step up.