Humans can learn about leadership from animals

Leadership attributes can be gleaned from all around us if we pay attention.

Great resources regarding leadership can be found in many places. One place I always look forward to hearing from on a weekly basis is Ohio State University Extension. They have a Leadership Center with excellent links to resources, workshops and self-development. Even better, the group issues a weekly Leadership Moments newsletter that individuals can subscribe to.

Last week’s article really spurred my thinking about how humans can learn leadership skills simply by paying attention to the world around them, in addition to formal training, of course!

Leadership skills are a skill set that can be possessed both in humans and in animals.  Animals exhibit group influence, guidance and communication with their followers.  As an example, animals that travel in groups for migratory and/or movement decisions, often depends on social interactions among their own group members. Group leaders require superior communicating skills as they relay information and/or express action.  Animals send messages to one another via noises and actions which can only be understood by their own species. Information that is transferred is crucial to survival and may include the location of a food source, or of a migration route. 

Iain Couzin, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, explained as part of NPR's coverage of this year's presidential election, on an All Things Considered series on the science of leadership that, "One common property we see in animal groups from schooling fish to flocking birds to primate groups is that they effectively vote to decide where to go and what to do."

“One fish heads toward a potential source of food, the other fish vote with their fins on whether to follow,” Couzin explained. “This highly democratic process helps animals make decisions as a group that are better than those of any single member.”

“Successful animal leaders know they can't get too far ahead of their constituents,” Couzin said.

"They seem to simply reconcile their own goal-oriented behavior with this tendency to align with others," Cousin adds. "Because if you don't tend to be influenced by others, you then leave the group behind, and you may get eaten by predators, or you lose the benefits of group living."

An additional article you might enjoy reading on the subject highlighting geese is by T. A. Kayser called “Building Team Power: How to Unleash the Collaborative Genius of Teams for Increased Engagement, Productivity and Results.”

Michigan State University Extension offers educational programs for people who would like to develop or improve their leadership skills. To contact an expert in your area, use the “Expert Search” tool on the MSU Extension website.

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