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What leaders can learn from lizards

Lessons from crocs to Churchill

Three distinct lizard-like reptiles constitute the crocodilian species. They are alligators, crocodiles, and gharials, animals that live exclusively in India, where the word was originally used to describe long, narrow jaws. (In fact, the jaws of the gharial differ from the jaws of the other two by way of their distinctly elongated jaw line.)

The crocodile has nearly all of its teeth on the outside of its mouth. But out or in, crocodilians do not use their teeth for chewing food. Instead, they grab and tear their food, which can be as large as a human being. The phrase “crying crocodile tears,” has its basis in fact, although the myth is that these creatures cry when they dine on humans. In truth, their eyes become very moist when they eat—anything. As air moves through the crocodile’s sinuses and mixes with tears from the lacrimal glands, it does appear as if the creature is weeping.

And, just as we know that great oaks from little acorns grow, these soft-skinned creatures— whose eggs at birth are no larger than a goose’s—can grow to 23 feet and a weight of 2,200 pounds. The crocodile is larger-than-life in another way—it replaces lost teeth quickly. In a lifetime, a crocodile grows 8,000 teeth.

Small stuff or big stuff they may encounter? Unlike humans, crocodiles don’t sweat.

Leadership Lessons derived from crocodile behavior

Identify myths.
 

Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller Furniture, maintains that a leader’s job is to establish reality. To do that, you may have to identify and bust the myths, rumors, and assumptions that may be interfering with your success or your team’s productivity. Along with myth-busting, learn the origin of common and widely held views and explore those with your staff.

Maintain your composure.


Among the observations Glenn Llopis shares in a Forbes article (“7 Ways Leaders Maintain Composure During Difficult Times,” January 23, 2014) is the importance of keeping a positive mental attitude. Failing to remain cool (or to let your sweat show) can bring forth panicked behavior—in yourself and others.

Think big.


You have read that the crocodile is tiny at birth, with the egg being about the size of a large chicken egg. If nature were entirely logical, we might expect the crocodile to mature to be the size of a chicken. In fact, that small egg can produce an enormous creature, much bigger that a chicken. The largest crocodile on record is 20 feet long and weighs 2,456 pounds! In similar fashion, we find that the most effective leaders can create results that go way beyond logical expectations. Be that kind of leader. Set your expectations high and share them often.

Questions to provoke/promote leadership thinking

Peter Drucker is often regarded as the Father of Management Science. He encourages leader to ask questions in order to advance individual and collective missions. Here are several for you to consider.

• What myths may be associated with you? With your organization? With your leadership-endeavors?

• Which of those myths should you consider not dispelling?

• How can you shatter those that may imperil your leadership efforts?

• Do your plans tend to be “small plans”?

• How are you, as a leader, stirring the blood of men and women?

• What aspects of your leadership could benefit from an “inside-out” approach (like the crocodile’s unusual placement of teeth)?

Insights to widen your view of leadership behavior

Leaders are receptive to insights that come from a wide array of sources. If you are serious about honing your leadership skills, consider these observations and discuss each with someone whose leadership capabilities you admire.

• Daniel Hudson Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

• John Quincy Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

• Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

• Donald Trump: “You have to think anyway, so why not think big?”

• Henry Kissinger: “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.”

• Warren Bennis: “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

Applying successful leadership practices

The Work-Out session

If you’re receptive to deriving leadership lessons from lizards, you are probably equally receptive to deriving such lessons from those highly regarded in the world of business. For example, consider the Work-Out Jack Welch instituted at General Electric. As demanding as the term implies, participants in this forum-like setting get a mental workout. They are also allowed to take unnecessary work out of their jobs. And, they can work out problems together.

Here’s how to put it into practice in your own organization. A group of 40 to 100 people from all ranks and functions goes to a hotel and is briefly addressed by the boss, who provides an agenda (with issues that need to be resolved) and then leaves the room. The group breaks into teams and each tackles one part of the agenda—listing complaints, proposing solutions, and preparing presentations for the third day, when the boss returns.

To be sure, you can use this technique with a much smaller group. You will still need the manager to present the challenges, though, on the first day.

The boss has no idea about what has been discussed. All he or she knows, as s/he sits in the front of the room, is that senior executives are there to watch and that the boss will be given proposals on which he must make a decision. Each team presents its proposals. The boss can only agree to the proposal; say “no”; or ask for more information by a certain date. That is it.

Imagine what the boss’ bosses are thinking if the boss says yes to every proposal. Or, if the boss says no to every proposal. Or if the boss postpones a decision each time.

These sessions have proven to be highly effective—on many levels, not the least of which is the hundreds of thousands of dollars saved by the ideas presented. Work-Outs are but one example of the demands placed upon today’s leaders. The challenges—from employees, from the CEO, from stockholders, from the media, from technological developments, from the competition-driven global environment—are enormous. The past no longer offers the comfort of precedent—not in today’s rapidly changing climate. Miles Davis’ dictum for musicians, “Don’t do tomorrow what you did yesterday,” applies equally well to leaders charged with charting new directions for the future.

Just as companies have come to regard themselves as integrated, highly responsive, and evolving systems, so are those who lead expected to integrate diverse elements; to respond easily, clearly, quickly; to evolve continuously as learners and leaders.

It will take a modicum of courage (to say the least) to set up a work-out session that suits your circumstances and adapts them to the overall process. But what are leaders, if not brave-hearted?

Self-analysis

This self-assessment should make you think about your receptivity to the idea of continuous improvement. Like most of us, you probably view yourself as a good communicator. Are you willing to consider the possibility that you are not? Learn more about yourself now. Before you begin the assessment on the following page, make a copy. Write your answers on a separate sheet of paper.

When you are finished, do two things: ask someone who knows you exceedingly well to answer the questions in relation to what he or she believes is true of you. Discuss any discrepancies.

Finally, return to the blank copy in six months. Fill out the questionnaire and compare your answer to your earlier responses.

[1] Consider the turning points in your life so far. Do you view them as:

(a) experiences common to most people.


(b) lessons from which you will ultimately profit.

[2] In terms of your values or philosophy of life:

(a) it is essentially what it was 10 years ago.


(b) it undergoes dramatic transformations from time to time.

[3] Regarding your leadership style:

(a) you quickly grasp both the overt and covert complexities of a given situation.

(b) you essentially believe that people are the same, for the most part, and that most outcomes are predictable.

[4] When it comes to problem solving:

(a) you gravitate toward the obvious, and often simplest, answer. (b) you tend to come up with solutions others haven’t thought of.

[5] With regard to new problems that arise, you tend to:

(a) rely on solutions that have worked in the past.

(b) exercise flexibility with possibilities.

[6] When faced with an unprecedented situation:

(a) you strive to make connections between seemingly unconnected variables.

(b) you focus on the elements you have experienced before and deal with those.

[7] Regarding “new knowledge”:


(a) you interact with a variety of sources to obtain it.


(b) you are not inclined to let it impact what has already proven successful.

[8] In your written communications:

(a) you make comparisons to help others understand concepts.

(b) you tend to be straightforward.

[9] If you were attempting to dispel a myth:

(a) you are likely to bring in multiple points, perhaps without connecting them.

(b) you express yourself in a logical, linear fashion.

[10] In terms of the job you are expected to do:

(a) you look to form strategic alliances.


(b) you do what you have been asked to do.

Churchill, Crocodiles, & You

Winston Churchill remains one of the world’s most beloved leaders. He understood and acted on the need for bold, decisive action. In fact, he compared a non-leader to a crocodile: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Don’t “feed” the forces and sources that may prevent you from taking action to advance your goals. Leadership, after all, is a matter of effecting positive change. And positive change does not involve feeding powerful crocodiles.

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