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What Jane Goodall Can Teach Us About The Evolution of Leadership

The secret to good leadership lies in simple habits.

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The best innovators, the best leaders–in short, those who take us to another level of understanding, progress, and value–often feel in short supply. It’s less that they don’t exist, and more that we make two crucial errors in how we look for them and what we hope to glean: we look for who we know and what we know.

By looking for the familiar, we fail to let ourselves stray into lands unknown; the very place where fresh insights lie waiting for us. You might say we’re busy looking for “plain Jane” when we ought to be looking for Jane Goodall. 

The year 2020 marked the 60th anniversary of Goodall’s work and the start of her revolutionary research about humans, who we are, and where we fit in the world around us. It isn’t who Goodall became or what she gave to the world that’s relevant to us as would-be leaders and innovators. It’s how she went about it: by adhering to a handful of habits that can raise the odds of any of us breaking new ground and finding greater success. 

Goodall’s accomplishments are impressive. She was the first to conduct long-term studies of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, in their own environment and on their own terms. Prior to her work, scientists studied nearly all animals in zoos and labs. Because they bound their studies by looking for insight into the familiar, their work and their conclusions were narrow. Goodall set aside such constraints, and transformed how we see ourselves.

And yet, Goodall’s methods for achieving at such a high level were simple then and remain so now. Indeed, the secret to her success lies more in certain habits than in any of the unattainable genius or genetic qualities we want to cloak her in. Sometimes the most powerful tools are the simplest to dismiss. Here, a deeper look at Goodall’s success habits and why they’re worthy of your attention.

Get to know yourself.

From the time Goodall was a young girl, she had a strong sense of who she was. You may too, but it’s worth noting what she did with that knowledge. Most importantly, she pursued it. She embraced who she was, and allowed herself to play with what it meant.

She was willing to err and refine the meaning, too. In total, she went beyond knowledge to action, and from that habit, gained understanding. And she didn’t beat herself up trying to be someone other than who she was — one of the greatest and hardest lessons of all.

Don’t make a move without a clarity of purpose.

The “getting to know yourself” habit may sound simple or trite, but it was a powerful and necessary clarifier as she tuned into her purpose. Like self-knowledge, purpose is often simultaneously hailed and given short shrift because it seems, well, fuzzy. But the two things are only ambiguous so long as they’re not pursued and combined, things we typically overlook.

Remember that nothing yields insight like openness.

As much as Goodall was conscious of honing in on herself and refining where she wanted to point her energies and abilities, the key to her success continues to be the openness with which she perceives and filters everything. Openness was there when she chose to break with tradition and live among the chimps to study them. It was a key element in how she interpreted what she saw, as well.

But it’s the fact that Goodall has remained steadfastly open that stands out and amplifies her impact. This openness is shaped by a toolkit of humbleness, inquiry, and the hard-earned lesson that innovating and being a leader are, just like figuring out who you are and what your purpose is, pursuits you never finish.

Seek and allow connection.

But the greatest lesson of leadership Jane Goodall teaches isn’t about her, it’s about seeking and allowing connection to others. The greatness of Goodall long ago grew far beyond her, to countless people who have taken up her purpose and shaped it into their own, or scooped up her ideas and built on them in ways she never imagined.

Indeed, at the height of her career, Goodall even turned her energies towards connection itself, leaving the wilds and the work she loved in the field to become a tireless connector of ideas and resources that allow others to “find Jane,” or Jim, or Janeen, or Jamal, the way she once did. How could she not? It’s hard to do otherwise when it’s your habit.

A version of this article originally appeared in the author’s Innovator’s Edge column for Inc. Magazine.

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