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Strong Leadership

Identifying the qualities and behaviors of true leadership.

With so many potential presidential candidates flooding the field, I was pondering what qualities embody a great leader. I wondered if there was a way to discern, among the considerable noise, who might be a strong leader and how looking at other species might provide some insights. More importantly, if you aspire to become a leader (not necessarily president), what qualities do you need to stand out and be successful?

The first trait that is most frequently talked about is having a vision or plan. There is nothing worse than a leader without a vision, except maybe one with a bad vision. A great leader has a clear and exciting idea of the future and where s/he wants to see growth, change, and accomplishment. This is about inspiring others to see the greatness in the bigger picture and how they can be a part of it. Essentially, seeing the greatness in themselves. Now Canada geese may not have big aspirations but when it comes to deciding whether or not to go in this direction or that, they definitely do not follow someone they believe doesn’t know where they are going!

The second quality I think is sometimes overlooked is the willingness and commitment to promoting the success and development of your team. Leadership is not about serving your own ambitions. People ultimately like working for their success, not yours. This means they need to be invested and the fastest most positive way to lead is to promote their success and growth as individuals. By inspiring them and providing opportunities for them to develop new skills they will work even harder.

One animal I think of that embodies leadership is elephants. As you may already know, it’s the females that are the strength and backbone of elephant society. They are matriarchal, and it’s the oldest female that is usually leading the herd. She knows where they are going, how to protect them, and how to cultivate the next generation of leaders. Another thing she's good at? Networking with other herds. By exposing her herd to others, it helps the younger generation form strong ties that will enable them to be strong future leaders.

For us, embodying this leadership style may ultimately mean people leave your team, but they will leave for the best of reasons! To move up and onward to greater things. They will respect you and speak highly of you wherever they go. You are cultivating loyalty and fostering cooperation. Thus, give your team members a say.

I know, I know, that almost sounds democratic. Here’s the thing, other species have democratic processes even when they have a leader. This is true for gorillas, where there is no question who the leader is. It’s unequivocally the silverback. However, he may pick the direction but the group only moves when a median of 65% of the group agrees. They do this by calling a two-thirds majority vote essentially. This type of consensus also helps build lifelong friendships among gorillas, which unlike elephants, are not usually related.

Unfortunately, some “leaders” try to accomplish things by force and fear. This is highly unstable and it doesn’t support cooperation. It is also a sign of poor leadership. In fact, despots are not the same as leaders. Rather, they are tyrants and dictators. Despotic decision-making systems are characterized by a structure where one or more dominant individuals tries to control access to all the resources. Research shows that despotic rule is very costly to everyone except guess who? The despot! Therefore, if your aspiration is to be a despot, fine, but then don’t cloak your truth with the shiny word leader.

Another attribute? Setting high standards and expectations that are achievable and for goodness sake, celebrate their achievements! There are a few key parts to this. First, you have high standards that are applied equally to all the members of your team. That means you don’t tolerate bullies or slackers. The rest of your team won’t trust you if you show partiality or play favorites. This is a breeding ground for resentment, disloyalty, and ultimately the departure of solid, skilled, people.

A simple example from rats may shine a light on our own feelings when others who fail to live up to the social contract of playing nice and fair. Rats are givers. When presented with an opportunity to help another rat gain access to a delicious piece of banana, rats went ahead and helped a fellow rat. The rat that received a piece of banana would then pay it forward to another rat. And so on. But guess what? No one liked the rat that gave them carrots. Giving carrots instead of bananas is being selfish. As a leader it is your job is to reward those that help, share, and pay it forward, not reward or excuse those that hoard and keep all the bananas to themselves.

This means you also need to get to know your team. You have to know the strengths of each of your team members and give them opportunities to shine on what they know how to do. If you assign the wrong tasks to your team members, they won’t be able to perform at the level you expect and you are undermining their confidence.

Termites have figured this out. In the genus Macrotermes, there is a strong division of labor. Simply put, the roles and tasks that any given worker accomplishes are suited to their abilities. While a termite may not need confidence, your team does. If your team is feeling insecure and unable to pursue tasks that show off their strengths, they will not be as productive and may ultimately leave.

By VJAnderson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: By VJAnderson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

A fourth and perhaps crucial trait is being adaptable. Have you ever heard the phrase, "Make a plan, keep a plan, change a plan"? How you handle setbacks, obstacles, and roadblocks can sometimes be more important than how you celebrate successes. That means being willing to see that an aspect of your vision or even a particular project is not moving forward and deciding when to change course.

In evolutionary biology, there is a principle called the Concorde fallacy, based on the epic failure of the Concorde. When you are committing this fallacy, it means you stay the course because you’ve already invested so much time, energy, money, etc., despite the fact that you would gain more by abandoning it. While contentious, there is evidence that other animals, like gray jays, may also be susceptible to the Concorde fallacy, or "sunken cost" syndrome.

The difference is that for them it probably isn’t pride or ego that drives their faulty decision-making. Rather, it’s past gains and the continued expectation of future rewards. And, well, they're hoarders, not leaders, so that makes some sense. Whether it is pride or investment, it takes great courage to be adaptable and to know when to pivot.

And one final thought. The above are only possible with strong, clear communication. This is more than just words. In your words, actions, and decisions, you need to be clear and consistent.


1. Conrad L., Roper TJ. 2003. Group decision making in animals. Nature 421:155-8 DOI 10.1038/nature01294

2. Zentall, T.R. Reciprocal altruism in rats: why does it occur? Learning and Behavior 44:7-8

3. Waite, T.A., 2001. Background context and decision making in hoarding gray jays. Behavioral Ecology, 12(3), pp.318-324.

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