Author Spotlight | Erna Walraven on What Wild Animals Teach Us About Leadership

What do wild animals expect from their leader?

In the wild, animals will voluntarily follow a leader that they trust, which has their back at all times, and which always acts with the best interests of the group at heart. The book Wild Leadership by Erna Walraven identifies the characteristics of successful animal leaders and also how teamwork works in the animal world. Understanding the instincts displayed by other species allows us to manage our own behaviour and relationships better, and can make us more effective leaders at home, in the workplace and in our communities.

I’ve looked at the different leadership styles of several mammal species from lions and elephants to meerkats and bonobos. Each species has adopted a leadership model that works in their society.

Erna Walraven

Erna Walraven is an author and Wildlife Consultant. She has worked in zoos for more than three decades, including as Senior Curator at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, for 20 years, where she is responsible for the scientific management of 400 species, including genetics, taxonomy, behaviour, welfare, interpretation and research. In this conversation, we discuss her book Wild Leadership.

Dipa: Much like us, some animals are highly social creatures. A key ingredient in every healthy relationship is trust. The concept of trust, however, is highly subjective. How do the different species communicate to build trust?

Erna: Our most basic instincts play a role in how safe or valued feel. Feeling safe determines how much we trust the leader. This in turn influences how willing we are to follow that leader. The leader we want to follow inspires trust and loyalty and understands our innate emotional and social needs.

Trustworthiness is the number one desirable trait in a wild animal leader. The troop or clan wants to be able to trust their leader. Animal leaders demonstrate with their actions that they can be trusted. The silverback gorilla is willing to fight to the death to defend his troop and we, too, expect leaders in whom we have placed our trust to always have our best interests at heart. We may not expect our leaders risk their life and limb for us but we do want to trust them to keep us safe.

Teenage girl bonobos joining a new group seek the support and protection of an older high-ranking female in the new troop, just as we might place our trust in an older colleague or experienced leader in a new company. Trust in our leader is what allows us to feel protected and perform at our best. Trust in the workplace and in animal societies, alike, creates harmony. Without trust we are less happy and more open to worry and fear. Every interaction can build trust, but it takes time to develop and can be lost in an instant.

We must also remember that leaders are people too. Where we are in the hierarchy does not change our need for approval and support. Leaders need to feel safe with their followers. Trust is a two-way street and must go both ways to create and maintain a happy and productive community or workplace.

Dipa: In your book, you discuss the various leadership styles that we see in the animal kingdom. For instance, Autocratic (e.g. Gorilla), Laissez-faire (e.g. Lion), Democratic (e.g. Baboon), and Paternalistic/Maternalistic (e.g. Elephant). How can leaders use these findings to best understand and develop their own leadership style?

Erna: Each of the animal leadership styles I discuss in the book tells us something about leadership models that work well in nature. Which of the positive qualities in those models could or should we emulate? The negative traits in those leadership styles speak for themselves: examples of animal leaders who monopolised resources and used violence or intimidation to seize or stay in power never last long in the top job. In my experience, it never ended well for those types of animal leaders. It’s far more instructive to focus on the positive traits that animal leaders display that result in long-lasting and thriving teams.

Patterns emerge across the different animal leadership styles, emerging in what leaders and their followers find important, and how this translates into the success of the community. Primates, like us, also have these innate expectations of our leaders.

  • We want a leader who we can trust;
  • We want a leader who has our back and makes us feel safe (conflict resolution and security);
  • We want a leader who is competent and benevolent (acquires resources and shares them).

The style of leadership we apply may change with different people and under varying circumstances. What is more important is to consider the impact we have as leaders on our followers. Humans evolved to expect our leaders to display the kind of behaviours that deliver on our hard-wired expectations of leadership. Our political, religious, and business leaders should all be aware of this ‘social contract’ we have regarding leadership and act accordingly. Understanding these instinctive expectations will make leadership feel more natural and potentially more rewarding for those willing to lead.

We must also remember that leaders are people too. Where we are in the hierarchy does not change our need for approval and support. Leaders need to feel safe with their followers.

Social gathering of six bonobos at the San Diego Zoo. Image Credit: W Calvin

Dipa: Over the years, I’ve spoken to many entrepreneurs and they almost always speak of cultural fit as the most important aspect of the hiring decision-making process. By studying these animals, what can we learn about the leader-follower relationship?

Erna: A ‘cultural fit’ is likely related to how well the leader meets the often unspoken, instinctive expectations followers have. If these are not met a ‘cultural fit’ is not likely to be achieved.

I’ve looked at the different leadership styles of several mammal species from lions and elephants to meerkats and bonobos. Each species has adopted a leadership model that works in their society. In a human context, we don’t need to use a single model but have a toolbox of leadership styles that can be used with different people and in different situations. However, we can learn something about good leadership from each of the animal examples. We can also learn a lot about what to avoid.

To understand what leadership is about today, we need to reflect on how it all began. Good leaders understand that our emotional reactions are as hardwired as they are in animals, and they keep this front of mind.

It is apparent that leadership relies on knowing what’s in it for the followers. Good leaders connect with their team. They understand the individual needs of team members and make them feel valued for their contribution. Validated, nurtured people in the workplace can achieve great things together and make the world a better place. Woe betide the leader who neglects their followers. In my decades of observing animal leaders, self-serving leaders have never had a happy ending.

Leaders and followers that are mutually supportive will be more likely to have a positive atmosphere at work, be more productive, suffer less stress, have less staff turn-over and live healthier, happier lives. The animal world shows us that leaders must demonstrate their values, share their vision and care about the individuals they lead if they wish to stay in the alpha position.

Good leadership in wild animals is not only about being in charge. It is about taking care of those in their charge.

Dipa: I grew up in a business family. The leadership style I inherited is highly paternalistic/maternalistic. How can leaders ensure that their followers share the same cultural values?

Erna: Elephants are a great example of the maternalistic/paternalistic leadership style. A maternalistic leader looks after her team as a wise mother would. The matriarch knows where she is going and the rest of the herd follows based on trust. The followers trust that the matriarch’s experience will lead them to food, water, and resting places when they need them. They also benefit from having a leader who cares about them and their wellbeing as individuals and will do everything in her power to ensure the family thrives.

Leadership is important in coordinating family life in an elephant society. The matriarchal elephant has qualities that are of substantial value to the team, qualities that will help the team to thrive. The knowledge gained over a lifetime of experiences is recognised in many human societies, although certain cultures prize it more highly than others. The contribution by older and possibly wiser leaders and workers should not be overlooked. In humans, a paternalistic or maternalistic leader works by applying the dynamics of family to their group, particularly with reference to giving guidance based on experience and nurturing their followers as a parent would.

Under what circumstances would this type of leadership suit our modern society? Modern leadership literature claims that workers under this style of leadership are expected to be completely committed to the organisation, the leader and what the leader believes. This could be considered an advantage as the leader intends all followers to succeed, potentially resulting in less competition for attention and resources in teams. Employees under this style of leadership report that they feel valued and heard. Paternalistic – maternalistic leaders show concern for their people and often take an interest in employees’ personal lives, making people feel more connected. The lack of competition can create a solid and committed workforce. These followers are likely to stay with the company a long time.

This leader takes responsibility and truly leads rather than leading by consensus.

Followers may appreciate the authentic interest that the leader has in their wellbeing and perceive that the leader understands their holistic needs, not just the needs of the team or the organisation. A potential disadvantage of this leadership style, however, is that followers can become too dependent on the leader.

During recruitment it is difficult to gage how well any leadership style will fit with individuals, only time will tell if the working relationship is beneficial to all parties.

Dipa: I’ve always believed that reciprocity is the cornerstone of every healthy relationship—be it between a leader and a follower or in a partnership setting. What are some of the ways in which animals embody this spirit of reciprocity?

Erna: Reciprocity is a significant issue in all relationships but in particular between leaders and followers, be they apes or people. It is about sharing and exchanging goods or favours and involves gratitude, memory and obligation. We often do favours for others and don’t expect to be paid back immediately. The same happens when we receive favours. Perhaps weeks or months, even years later we may still feel an obligation.

In great ape societies sharing and doing favours serves as a model for what we too have evolved to expect as moral behaviour. The relationship between leaders and followers is one of reciprocity. There is an exchange of services for money to buy resources. Reciprocal behaviour in the workplace would be around the work performed and fair remuneration for that work. If both parties are on the same page about the quality or value of the exchange, trust starts to build. In apes this reciprocal behaviour includes anything from grooming, sex, political support, food, or even a hug after a scare.

Our relationships at work are the same. We are happy to do favours but have innate expectations that they be repaid at some stage. This counts for leaders too. Leaders should not expect that, because they are the chief, this does not apply to them. From my animal experience I would suggest it applies even more to leaders than to followers. Successful chimp leaders I have known seem very aware of keeping score of who they have done favours for. That way they know who to count on when they need political support in dominance challenges. Leaders would do well to learn from the subtleties and obligations of reciprocity we see in animal societies, to lead successfully and long term.

Good leadership in wild animals is not only about being in charge. It is about taking care of those in their charge. A good chimpanzee leader, for example, has privileges but works for the members of their troop. Not the other way around. They understand that that leadership comes with responsibilities.

Trustworthiness is the number one desirable trait in a wild animal leader.

Erna Walraven

3 thoughts on “Author Spotlight | Erna Walraven on What Wild Animals Teach Us About Leadership

  1. It would be interesting to understand what sort of leadership style would work best based on the follower profile. For instance, we see that different nation-states tend to gravitate repeatedly towards a prototype of leader. Which is why when people choose to transplant their leadership ideology in another culture, it sometimes doesn’t work. I would be curious to understand why certain cultures are more partial to certain leadership styles as opposed to others.


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