Last year, I spent two weeks in Botswana, in southern Africa, watching big game animals.  That got me wondering what we might learn from them.  Take elephants, for instance.... 

Communicate, communicate

One of the funniest sights I saw in Africa was an elephant standing on one back leg, with the other leg crossed over, resting on its toes, like a guy standing at a bar. 

An elephant walks up to the bar...

Looks funny, but the elephant stands that way for a good reason: it communicates through subsonic waves that come into the soles of its feet.

Even more curious is the pseudo form of communication that acacia trees use.  When giraffes eat acacia tree leaves, the trees send out a "warning," pheromones that waft downwind to other trees.  The downwind trees then emit toxic tannins to prevent the giraffe from eating the leaves, which may explain why most giraffes move upwind as they eat! 

In both cases—elephants and trees—communication protects, warns, and alerts others in the group—in the herd or in the forest. Rather than being trivial or frivolous, the communication has a deliberate purpose. 

Yum.

Managers communicate a lot—so what can they learn? Perhaps to clear their own airwaves of clutter and non-essential information, and instead send out news of real value. 

Save your energy

In movies, lions often seem to be running—fast—after their prey. But in the bush, lions are brilliant energy savers, only chasing prey when the chance of success is high. 

Unlike other large animals in southern Africa, lions eat only meat. Not grass or nuts or fish. Just meat.  They also live in prides of up to 20 or more, so finding enough food every 2-3 days is tough. And, since lions can weigh several hundred pounds, running is a huge energy drain.  That's why run only after prey they know they can get. Instead, they sleep or stroll, saving energy for the hunt.

                                                                                                     

Why run when you can stalk?

But they are also opportunists. When an unsuspecting warthog ambles onto a group of alert lions, that's the end of the warthog. Energy used with purpose! 

Lessons for managers? Save energy for what really matters and use it when opportunities happen. 

Cull the herd

Over two days, I watched several lions stalk an old female cape buffalo. She'd been protected, in the center of a herd of 350, but after a few days, it was clear she couldn't keep up. When she and two male buffalos were at the tail end of the herd, the lions saw an opportunity.

Rather than fight the lions, the two male buffalos joined the herd, leaving the cow to her death.  Perhaps they sensed she'd never keep up and would die soon anyway, so they forfeited her for the good of the bigger herd.

How often do managers make that tough call to "cull the herd" to benefit the bigger group, whether it's a weak employee, a weak customer, or a weak process? It's hard, but perhaps leaders need  to  act like buffalo—culling the weak for the greater good.

Cull your own herd, I'll take care of mine!

So next time you're in the African bush, or your backyard, look to see what you might learn from animals that could help your organization.   

About the Author

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D.

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D., is Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University.

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