Great Leaders Read and Heed Important Signs

In the Okavango Delta, a lush veld populated by wild game in the middle of Botswana, I learned an important leadership lesson. In order to survive and thrive—whether on a safari in Africa or running a business—we need to be able to read and heed the signs that are available to those who look.

What kinds of signs? In the Delta, it is essential that you are constantly vigilant about the surrounding landscape. If you are riding under trees, look up for snakes and large cats that lay in wait for unsuspecting prey. (One of our Safari Sisters rode a horse that had been previously attacked by a lion, which had leapt out of a tree to attack horse and rider. As the lion sprang towards his targeted dinner, the horse justifiably spooked, unseating its rider, and the lion turned its attention to the horse. While the horse lost an eye and incurred a huge rake across its flanks, the rider was able to recover their rifle and shoot at the lion, sending it on its way.)

Check the soft terrain around water holes and hippo trails (large deep ruts used by hippos to access and leave watering holes) for tracks of animals that are fresh and might still be in the area. Some tracks you might want to follow, and some will send you the other way. Beware the lion! And finally, for telltale signs about the animals themselves, such as if a bull elephant is in musth (mating period) and will be extra grumpy and more likely to charge.

As leaders, we have years of experience learning both soft and hard skills. We learn how to manage people, and we get exposed to a wide variety of processes and techniques that make us better in our functional area of expertise. However, it is easy to get lulled into thinking that every day we enter the front door of the office that the terrain is the same. That simply isn’t true.

Too often we keep our heads down and go about getting work done the way we did yesterday. But that can be dangerous! What if a lion showed up at the water hole today and you didn’t see him until it was too late? It could be a competitor who consolidates with another and becomes a formidable threat. Or a new technology is created that could change demand for your goods.

Reading signs doesn’t stop problems from happening, but it allows you to prepare to negotiate them successfully. Just as animals have to be very aware of their environment for survival, good leaders are constantly observing their surroundings for clues that will help them anticipate trouble or take advantage of opportunities.

Here are some signs every leader needs to be able to read:

Employee Engagement

When you see a dazzle of zebras from afar, they seem content, grazing on the land. But as you get closer, you observe that there is always one watching you to try to determine your intent, and as you approach, they all get a bit restless. You engage them by moving slowly, becoming one with your horse and making no human sounds, letting your horse casually graze to show you are not a threat. As they become more comfortable, you can ride silently closer. You might repeat that behavior several times to ease into their space.

With employees, we need to be close enough to them to be able to build their trust, allow them to observe through our actions that we have their best interest in mind, and forge a meaningful partnership that adds value to the company. In preparation for a keynote speech I will be giving, I spoke with someone from a lab that talked about the impact that lean manufacturing principles have had on their profitability. They “flipped the mindset” from managers telling people what to do, to sharing the vision and empowering employees to solve problems. Morale went way up and absenteeism way down while profitability improved 20 to 30 percent in the first year in a highly competitive industry. The “herd” trusts the leadership when the goals are clear and serve the common good. Are your employees restless and wary? Or have you taken the time to earn their trust and assure them you have everyone’s best interests at heart?

Market Shifts

Animals have seasonal migration patterns. They have an innate understanding of nature and what they must do to survive in it. For many, that means exhibiting different behavior at different times—being migratory, physical changes to prepare for harsher climates, changing diet or joining or separating from the herd for mating rituals.

As business leaders, we need to be equally aware of shifts in the market and realize that change is just as inevitable. Economic down cycles can feel like the harsh winds of winter and be just about as welcome, yet they will come whether we are prepared or not. Competitive actions can be as unpredictable as spring, teasing us with its constant shift between winter and summer days. Technological advancements may feel like a surprise thunderstorm in the middle of the languid days of summer, each day, week, month melting into the next until we have a traumatic reminder that the winds can shift with a moment’s notice. Small changes over time seem subtle, but over time can yield big impact.

In one year’s time, much has changed, but we tend to go about each day as if it is the same as yesterday. One year fades into the next, and the next time we look up, we may be perplexed by how our company became stagnant. In today’s business world, life cycles of products and companies are shortening. In fact, the 10-year mark is often midway through a typical business model. Are you a leader who keeps his or her head up looking for minor shifts that can become big ripples in a short time? If so, your company will likely outlast your competitors. If not, you may fall prey to those who do. What signs should you look for?

  • Look for shifts in customer preferences that precede changes in product development or new technological solutions.
  • Identify leading indicators and watch them for clues as to coming economic cycles.
  • Reassess investments to be sure that you are taking advantage of opportunities that leverage your organization’s unique capabilities and not just funding what used to work.
  • Pay attention to customer profitability to ensure you are maximizing returns with each hard-earned sale.

Leadership Adaptation

One of my favorite things about the African experience was learning how innate leadership varied by type of animal. Some animal groups had multiple leaders, like zebras, where each male had his own family, but multiple families traveled together. Cape Buffalo run a democracy and a gender-integrated herd. When they are ready to travel, they stand and turn in the direction they want to go—the majority wins.

Others have one dominant male, and he has to continually defend his group against other young males who want to take his place. Lions fall into this category, and so while males and females are born in equal numbers, female lions outlive the males and outnumber them approximately 3-1. Only one in eight male lions lives to adulthood as they are kicked out of their pride at about the age of 2 and have to avoid other male territories until they are old enough to fight to win. Elephants form matriarchies and see the males only at breeding time.

Nature has shaped how animals have adapted to ensure they can thrive based on the inherent defense mechanisms and capabilities they have. As leaders of business, we too need to be able to adapt to circumstances. I once had a leader tell me that different kinds of leaders are needed by the same business at different times. During tough times, a warrior is needed. During fast growth, a visionary who builds culture is essential.

The point is that as leaders we need to be able to adapt our leadership to the needs of the organization—the business and its people. It is not a one-size-fits-all game. It is not even one type of leadership per company; leadership needs to be situational. Good leaders understand that they need to constantly assess the situation for what is needed now and look to themselves first to make the adjustments or change necessary to make sure the entire group is successful.

Opportunity Assessment

As you might imagine, menus change a bit in the delta. We never saw a single “golden arch.” They had beef, but it was likely to be kudu. They made a delightful chicken curry. Fruit was often mangoes. We never knew what to expect at the next meal, but were almost always delighted. Almost. Sometimes in spite of their good intentions to “Americanize the meal,” they run into fussy eaters like me who are not as adventurous and reluctant to attack the unknown with enthusiasm. So my strategy was simple. If the dish was unfamiliar, I took a bit on my plate and did a taste test. If I liked it, I went back for more. I did not starve; in fact, I ate too well. But I didn’t eat everything.

In business, we need to remember that trying new ideas is a good thing but we need to exercise some caution. Not all things will work. Each of our companies has a unique palate, often based on its unique capabilities. What we try and what we don’t shouldn’t be without regard to 1) what we are trying to strategically accomplish (do we need protein or more veggies in our diet to reach our goals); 2) how likely will it be to help reach the goal; and 3) is there early evidence (for me, the taste test; for you, factual market indicators) that it is worth investing more in?

As Jim Collins suggests in his book “Great by Choice,” successful companies fire bullets before cannon balls. Small ammunition before the big guns. That worked when thwarting charges by animals, too. We were charged twice. Once by a bull elephant in musth. We scattered like ants as we rushed to get away, and our horses had to dance over and around a great deal of felled trees and branches that the elephant had already destroyed. Later, a 3,000-pound hippo took umbrage with being the center of our attention. Watching a hippo roar out of the water throwing water off its back over 20 feet as he rushed forward, his powerful pink jaw stretching open to send his message that we were too close didn’t invite negotiation. The speed of this unathletic-looking animal is not to be underestimated. We turned and fled.

Our guide taught us the right sequence in dealing with charging animals. Shout first, launch a bear banger second, and use the rifle as the choice of last resort. Every time, the shout was enough. While we were swiftly retreating our guide, our leader, held his position and assessed the threat, even challenging the animal to encourage it to back off. As a leader, are you prepared to stand your ground? To shoulder the consequences if the idea doesn’t work as planned? To ensure the best result, start the project at a size you can “own the consequences.” And be prepared to scale up quickly if it is a wild success.

The Okavango Delta was a wonderful workshop full of leadership lessons. Perhaps I should host a trip for adventurous leaders to learn these lessons first hand. It is amazing how fast we learn when our life depends on it. Any takers?