Following any national or international crisis, we Americans tend to dissect the leadership style of those responsible for handling the crisis. Think about the collective time spent analyzing post-Katrina disaster relief; studying Rudy Giuliani's remarkable efforts to restore his city to normalcy following the 9-11 attack; evaluating the police response to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. As a nation, we learn by example, we learn from our mistakes, we re-learn lessons we once knew about leadership by studying the leaders who demonstrate how leadership is (and isn't) defined.
But perhaps we're missing an opportunity to learn about leadership from a source available to all of us, free of charge. Perhaps we're overlooking exemplars that are right in front of us. Instead of exploring, as the study of leadership usually does, the style and methods of those men and women (and sometimes, even children) who assume the leadership mantle, perhaps we should be studying nature. Instead of turning automatically and immediately to recognized leaders when we are contemplating leadership, it might be worth our while to turn first to the animal kingdom, which has learned to survive despite threats from man, from nature, and even from meteors hurtling to earth from outer space. (The crocodile, for example, has been around for over 200 million years.) By extrapolating from natural examples to leadership behaviors, we can ideally gain fresh perspectives. We can look at situations in a new light, thereby garnering invigorating insights.
Leadership in Atypical Places
Literary lion, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, suggests new understandings will accrue if we are able to "Love all God's creatures, the animals, the plants. Love everything to perceive the Divine mystery in all." Whether you are seeking to unravel divinity-secrets or merely seeking to better understand the elements of good leadership, you'll find nature one of your best sources / resources.
We find evidence of behavioral guidelines, of course, wherever we look-including glimpses into proverbs. This one, from Malaysia, advises, "Trumpet in a herd of elephants; crow in the company of roosters; bleat in a flock of goats."
The very predictability of political speech suggests the need for new understandings of leadership, understandings that can be derived by studying the birds and the bees and the beasts. Inevitably-no matter the party, no matter the events of the day-there will be talk of lowering taxes or restoring the American dream. There will be pledges to make America great again and to do something long-needed on the first day in office. And, of course, there will be references to the Constitution and comparisons to Ronald Reagan.
The contenders for the 2016 presidential race found "outliers" drawing some of the biggest crowds. People like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were more of a draw than seasoned political leaders. This dissatisfaction with traditional leaders is another good reason to consider atypical sources of inspiration and best practices. The predictability of political speech and the unpredictability of the speakers' behavior lend importance to the need for a new font of leadership knowledge.
Biomimicry and a Creed of Your Own
There's a word for the emulation of nature to derive scientific benefits: "biomimcry." It is considered a method of solving human problems by imitating nature. We hope that you will soon subscribe to a "biomimicreed yourself," a belief that there is much we can learn from nature's way. If you do subscribe to this belief, you will discover there are many benefits to be derived from studying the animal, insect, and marine world.
You'll come to understand how much is to be learned in the examination, for example, of the tensile strength of a spider's spun silk, which is stronger than steel. You'll comprehend scientists' fascination with burrs stuck on the coat of a Swiss engineer-which led to the creation of Velcro. Become a serious student of biomimicry and see why the nose of Japan's bullet train resembles the long beak of a kingfisher; why NASA engineer replicated the dentricle patterns in the skin of sharks in order to reduce drag.
No doubt you'll be impressed by Pak Kitae, who was drawn to the Namibian beetle and its capture of fog in a desert setting; you'll readily come to see why Peter Agre of Johns Hopkins University won the Nobel Prize in 2003 for his identification of a membrane protein that permits water to pass through the walls of cells. (It wasn't long before the Danish firm Aquaporin use this discovery to desalinate sea water.)
Mother Knows Best
Mother Nature, that is. If you develop a biomimicreed-ie, faith in the possibility of learning important lessons from nature – you will understand Dr. Jonas Salk's explanation: asked how he came to develop the polio vaccine, he simply said, "I learned to think the way Mother Nature thinks." Mercedes-Benz adopted this kind of thinking when they devised an experimental car based on the aerodynamically flawless boxfish. And speaking of fish, biology professor Frank Fish put bumps on turbine blades in order to minimize both drag and noise. The source of his inspiration? A humpback whale statue he saw in a Boston gift shop. Schools of fish led John Dabiri of Caltech University to devise a wind farm that optimizes air flow.
A team of University of Massachusetts researchers have developed an incredibly strong adhesive named Geckskin, in honor of the gecko whose powerful grip is the result of millions of microscopic hairs on its toes. And perhaps you've heard about the new vaccines that no longer require refrigeration. Their producer, Nova Laboratories in Leicester, England, invented them by studying tardogrades, micro-animals that can live without water for 120 years and come back to life when they imbibe water once again. There's so much more we've gained and continue to gain from nature, including light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that came about after scientists in several countries analyzed why fireflies have "fire" in their bellies.
If you watched the 2008 Olympics, you no doubt saw the "Watercube," a swim center that replicates the crystal-like structure of soap bubbles. And, if you subscribe to the online Optimist Daily, you'll know that researchers have discovered a natural sunscreen, by studying the slime that comes from algae and reef fish.
University of Exeter researchers have discovered a way to make energy derived from the sun more efficient-by imitating the method butterflies use to raise the temperature on their flight muscles. Transferring this knowledge to the emission of power coming from solar panels, they have managed to improve output by a nearly 50% increase: by reproducing the butterfly's wing formation, researchers found the power-to-weight ratio of the solar structure expanded seventeen-fold .
As one who has adopted a biomimicreed, you'll be attuned to ways you might improve a leadership undertaking by thinking about nature in new, more respectful ways. You'll not skip over articles like the one by Christopher Solomon that appeared in the May 18, 2015, online edition of New York Times. It featured Dr. Erick Greene, a biology professor at the University of Montana. He finds that "when birds squawk, other species seem to listen."
Greene and others have found that animals can identify the alarm signals of other species. There's a lesson here for business people who tend to become insular in their thinking, failing to benchmark or to bring in divergent thought. Greene found that when little chickadees spot raptors in nearby trees, they make their "chick-a-dee" call, which actually galvanizes other birds to the spot. This avian mob harasses the potential enemy until it leaves the area. (Interestingly, when the chickadees add more "dees" to their calls, it means the danger is larger than usual.) Teamwork triumphs, indeed.
"Biomimicry" usually aligns science and nature. However, in a TED (Technology, Education, and Design) talk delivered in November 2010, Michael Pawlyn explores "using nature's genius in architecture." He maintains that imitating nature would allow us to factor 10-perhaps even factor 1000 times-the savings in energy and resources used in buildings. He speaks of pollen grains that inspire architects to create efficient architectural designs using hexagons and pentagons.
The Wild and the Wildebeests Call
Just as our nation represents unified diversity or "e pluribus unum," the wildebeest looks as if it was carved into one creature from the parts of many others. Like the ferocious bull, the wildebeest has horns; yet, its head looks a horse's (as does its tail). The wildebeest's front end is sturdy, like an ox's, while its hindquarters are slender, like an antelope's. On a very basic level, the wildebeest example provides a lesson for leaders: diverse elements can be united to yield remarkable results-whether in an entire nation or in a humble beast.
Fortune magazine cited numerous other examples of nature as a mother lode of leadership information several years ago ("Calls of the Wild," Tim Carvell, page 121, June 12, 2006). The article begins with a provocative question, "When you've phoned in sick, have any of your co-workers ever been thoughtful enough to come over and regurgitate blood into your mouth?" This is what vampire bats do for each other. Of course, other examples abound of animals working together for the collective good, and of nature fixing her own problems. (An article by Justin Adams in the e-edition of The Optimist [June 15, 2015], asks, "But why invest so much time and money in developing new technologies when nature already has evolved the cheapest, most effective and scalable tool at our disposal: forests? ")
Lee Dugatkin, a biologist-author ("Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees") asserts that our animal counterparts are actually operating on a simple cost-benefit analysis. They realize that by working together, they can more easily achieve success for the community as a whole. There is even a phrase that's been coined to explain the individual animal or insect that is willing to deny itself in order to aid the group: "biological altruism."
Unfortunately, we don't always find examples of such altruism in the corporate kingdom. The good news, though, is that improved communications and sincere commitment can overcome some of the stumbling blocks to productive results. Reading about the selflessness of our natural counterparts may indeed inspire.
Plankton author Christian Sardet maintains we owe our very existence to the single-celled ocean drifters. He says that for every two breaths we take, we owe once of them to the photosynthetic microscopic water beings. Apart from such debts, though, we find ourselves indebted to the natural world in less critical ways. By examining various practices evident in nature and natural creatures, we can find add to leadership-knowledge in the human sphere.
The Childhood Connection
By making extensions to leadership practices, we can eliminate some of those stumbling blocks in the way of productivity. After all, we have identified with animals from childhood-all those stuffed animals in our cribs and playpens formed an early linkage, a simpatico with animals we believed, at least for a while, to have hearts and souls. And then, there were all the books and movies and videos-when children cry over Bambi or The Velveteen Rabbit, something has caused that emotional reaction. That something is our early bonding with creatures of the earth that don't look like us but that we relate to, nonetheless. And when children laugh at Mickey Mouse's or the roadrunner's antics, it is because they understand them; they are kindred spirits.
Our imaginations have made us aligned with creatures, as have certain traditions, in particular those inherent in the Native American culture. Each tribe is guided by an animal spirit, the energy belonging to that animal on earth. The power is greater than that belonging to just one animal, as it represents the spirit of all that animal's predecessors.
From the Bible, through Aesop's Fables to modern works of literature like Animal Farm or world-acclaimed accounts like Jane Goodall's of animals in their natural state, we have bonded with and been inspired by animals all of our lives. (As a child, Goodall had a toy chimpanzee named Jubilee that helped shape her future.) It is a very small leap then to move from this enormous influence to the lessons to be learned from the nature world. Up to eighty million dogs and ninety-six million cats are find themselves in American households-to say nothing of the other species cherished as pets. Is it any wonder we find ourselves mirrored in their behaviors, our lives entwined with their existence?
It's true that scientists have been at work for a long time, studying nature and then applying its lessons – scientists like those at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who, in an attempt to create more efficient solar panels, studied the eyes of moths and lotus leaves and their ability to repel water.
This whole notion of deriving an unexpected understanding of our role as leaders by studying the environment may be new to you, but brilliant minds have been exploring such connections for decades.
Whether you're interested in improving your individual leadership style or interested in improving the way your team functions; interested in getting your entire staff or department to think more about leadership characteristics; or hoping to lead your parish or school or neighborhood in undertaking a project of some kind, turn to nature-if only occasionally-for inspiration.