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.


Why do Employees make Mistakes – or do they?

What mistakes; not to be laughed at, employee mistakes waste money, waste time and then there is more money and more time required to fix the mistakes. So how do companies and managers reduce the number of mistakes, how do managers get their employees to be more conscientious, more aware of what they are doing? Are there any proven methods for reducing the occurrence of mistakes? How do we even begin to look for these methods that work? Well the first and most obvious place in the i-Age is a search of the internet, it’s here we find promulgated, a multitude of corrective measures, suggestions and indeed ideal methodologies, all proposing concepts and solutions such as: “Turn mistakes into learning lessons, develop strict policies, consider the employee’s track record, consider motivation” and then random comments in the likes of: “Watch your language and don’t yell”

I don’t disagree with many of these ideas and methods for improving the employee’s ability to do the job, just as I don’t agree with quite a few of these either. But most of the ‘solutions’ currently found are coming at the problem from the wrong side, they automatically assume mistakes are all due to the employee; yep, their motivation, their lack of skills, training or even their focus (distractedness). Yet even when these are addressed, the problem of mistakes continues.

What’s the Point? Well it’s all about the question being asked, after reading most researched “solutions” it is obvious they have assumed the question is “Who made the mistake, then why”.  They continue to miss the most pertinent point: nearly every single employee; worker, manager or executive does NOT come to work to make mistakes, I have never heard of anyone waking up and thinking “wow, I am going to try and shorten my tenure with my employer and wreak my self-esteem at the same time by making mistakes”.  Yes, I do acknowledge there are those who want to sabotage their work, or that of others, but that’s a different situation/symptom.

Why not the Who? Before I get to this, I want to provide a clarification on what is a Mistake is. In simple terms it’s “an action, decision or judgment that produces an unwanted or unintentional result”. In this case we are talking about are errors of judgement happening in the workplace. And, the key point here is that it was unintentional or unwanted. Specifically, the employee did not want or expect that particular outcome.

I believe the typical questions regards mistakes need to be rephrased. When a mistake is identified the question in the first instance should be “how did the system fail the employee” (I know this works, this is a question I ask). This does not mean the system or process was too loose and we now need to make the process absolutely tight and regimented so there is no room for error. This would be counter-productive, time consuming and cost prohibitive, remember some mistakes are a blessing in disguise as they are often when the ah-ha or eureka moment happens. It’s about identifying the gaps the promoted the mistake or left the employee blind-sided.

The Point is: the first time a mistake is made, we should be looking at all the supporting functions, actions, processes and interactions that enhance, inhibit or don’t add value to the employee in doing their job effectively. So, before an assumption is made about the employee being the one “at fault”, a review, audit or analysis should be conducted on all the  mechanisms supporting the employee, including what levels of training, the on-hand tools and equipment, the support received from their supervisor/manager/peers, the IT systems, available information, etc. etc. The review should also look at whether similar issues or problems have happened with other staff, and if there have been complaints about, or suggestions to improve systems and processes, and don’t forget the culture and any imposed stresses. Is the employee’s manager (is this you?) doing the right thing by their staff, is stress being redirected to the employee unnecessarily?

The purpose of a review is to correct any insidious, systemic gaps which often get missed in the “normal” course of business. Now, this review also needs to be measured, the effort put into the review of necessity needs to be commensurate with the risks and costs. If it’s a small mistake with low risk and low cost, a simple review can be carried out and all within an hour or so, whereas, on the other hand a high risk, high cost error in judgement should command a lot more attention and resources. Careful consideration must also be made of the low level mistakes that indicate a bigger problem lurking in the background, gaining in energy and intensity – for example bullying and intimidation in the workplace. Although the mistake itself may have been small, a culture (workplace) that is growing in toxicity will eventually have to address an even bigger problem which goes beyond the individual and get the attention of the regulators and law makers, which will not be good for business.

The employee is not absolved. Although there is a focus on identifying the cause of the mistake, which to now is not yet on the employee themselves, the employee must still take responsibility for facilitating and participating in identifying, clarifying and resolving the mistake.  Being so intimate with the issue, they are in the optimum position to work as explorers and collaborators on this project. It is also in their-own best interest to identify the source, the cause of the mistake (obviously). This first tranche of finding the source then addressing it to limit the potential of more inadvertent costs, it can also provide us two more positive outcomes – specifically, those involved in the project are also learning and gaining experience in the identification of more potential problems and causes. And folks, that’s not all, the employee now feels a valued part of the organisation (if they didn’t before, they do now) and will have a more positive attitude towards the role, their manager and the company. Now that’s great, how many win/win/wins is that?

Damn, it’s happened again. If after doing all the previous work on stopping a mistake, there appears another very similar one, a very short question now needs to be asked: “did we solve all underlying issues or was this an error solely based around the employee”. If we recognise there are still underlying issues as not all were found and resolved, the next action is quite obvious – “Go back to start” and begin again.

Let’s just assume we did do a good job and all is well on the systems side of the equation, covering external events potentially impacting the employee. This then leaves the issue plainly with the employee, we now need answers to a number of questions but with an employee focus and in the form of what happened, how did it happen and why did it happen. We are trying to get to know why the employee is acting, reacting and responding to the situation in the way they did. This is to understand what triggered the decision, what caused the employee to make the decision they did from an intern al perspective

We are not only focusing on our investment in human resources, we really are also concerned about the overall health and welfare of our staff. Each one of us will react differently across a spectrum of pleasures and stresses. Some achieve great things under a particular type of stress, yet under the same stress, others can collapse and not function effectively, or even become dysfunctional, they may even make mistakes. When making enquiries at this second stage, the goal is to find out on a personal level what is happening to encourage this particular employee make judgements as they do.

Too many questions will definitely not solve the issue and may in fact push any opportunities underground. Here we are working on a personal level. It needs to be one to one, a relationship based on the mutual need to solve a problem that is having a negative effect on all stakeholders. Again, people do not come to work to fail, so what is causing this lapse in good decision making. When working through the problems at this second stage, the questions need to cover how the employee feels and reacts to situations, how is their physical health, how is their mental health, how are their personal finances, are things ok at home, is the family well, etc.  Very few people have the capacity or skill set to leave all their personal life at home and leave their work life at work. For some personalities it is very obvious, for others it’s an increscent noise at the back of their head which can distract them or affect their ability to think clearly – or maybe even rationally.

An offering of help can make a big difference. Once they open up (voluntarily) and provide information giving an insight to where they are at, options become possible and made available to help them. It could be anything as simple as a paid day off, or some advice on managing personal bills. At other times it might just be allowing them to state what is wrong and show them they will not be judged (this one works well) and best thing about this option, no people or animals are hurt or injured in the process. They just need to put their points, concern, worries and maybe suggestions on the table – I have found people may not say anything so as to not offend or worry the boss, or to look like fools. In one real case an employee even thought they would lose their job if the boss found out they had a medical problem – that boss was me, they eventually told me about their need to have an eye operation. This was a good outcome as it meant I did not need to follow through with the disciplinary action that was about to be presented for the data entry errors (mistakes) they were making.

As I have said before, people do not want to fail, they want to enjoy their job and they want to earn the respect of others by doing a good job. As managers, we need to allow them and help them, to do their job.

Where are we now? Ok it looks like we have crashed into the last stage, which means the first two options did not address the cause of the mistake. Yet getting to this stage in the process does not mean we disregard the good work already been done, we have to acknowledge that this time and effort was not wasted, quite the contrary. Holes and gaps in the system will have been identified (no system is perfect, if you did not find something, then you weren’t looking properly), people went through a learning opportunity, plus other employees will have seen the effort taken in the first two stages, making them more comfortable in the fact that the people aspect is always considered and not just a tick box, thus generating respect (nothing to do with likability or being mates).

When all else fails and we are at the final option, it means the same mistakes have continued happening and we know the system does work in supporting employees and all relevant areas of the employee’s personal  situation have been explored and appropriate support provided. It now comes down to some really basic questions. Literally – is the employee up to the job, do they have the right attitude, have they given up, do they want the job?  Remember all those experts on the internet explaining how to get the most from the employee?; well this is where they come in, sort of/maybe. For me, the better option is to talk to the HR department and see what official options there are left (there are laws and regulations that apply when we get to this point). HR can advise if the employee should be “coached”, go on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) or be Walked off – remember as managers we should be taking the initiative and not just passing difficult employees on to HR to “sort out”.  Yes there not many options left by this time, but having already analysed and reviewed for system/systemic gaps (and probably made improvements), as well as attempting to help at a personal level, ownership of the problem is now 90% in the employee’s hands, they now need to decide whether they want to change and stay or won’t and go.

In its simplest form, this means we first find out what is stopping the employee doing their job the way we want, the next phase is to help the employee in a personal way, if no improvement, back to the “old way of dealing with mistakes”.

There is a huge caveat though, if this is to succeed, the manager must act like a leader and be emotionally evolved enough to realise the issue may not be with the employee, and yet strong enough to go through with the whole process – to the end if need be.

I hope this helps in some way, this has helped me with my staff.

PS: you do not need to be the manager to bring this about, if you made the mistake, take the bull by the horns and start the process yourself, its the type of proactive steps managers appreciate.