Chris Lowney, Contributor
June 22, 2021
Here’s how to become a better leader: Place a giraffe figurine on your desk.
Then, every morning, let this remarkable creature remind you of three qualities that should animate you as a leader:
First, be foresighted enough to spot far-off opportunities and challenges. Giraffes are the world’s tallest animals, topping out at about eighteen feet, and are blessed with remarkably acute eyesight. They’re perfectly equipped to survey the distant landscape and spot emerging threats.
Not so for us humans. Nature doesn’t magically equip every manager with perspective. Exactly the opposite: We get sucked into short-sightedness by quotidian tasks, social media, and data overload. As a result, the crucial becomes buried amidst the irrelevant.
Good leaders must overcome the relentless drumbeat of distractions and confusion to stand any chance of attaining perspective. One way to do it: Step back for a few minutes of quiet reflection, every day. Withdraw from the distracting swirl of the mundane to ponder what’s critical in the longer run. After all, your greatest value won’t be as “micromanager in chief,” but as one who can take in the big picture that others may miss.
The Harvard-based scholar Ronald Heiftetz conveys this idea through the metaphor of “ getting off the dance floor and getting up on the balcony ” to perceive the patterns that aren’t perceptible from amidst the action.
Let’s stretch (pardon the pun) our metaphor even further: Because their keen eyesight and elevated perspective gives them insight on what’s coming, giraffes play a sentinel role not just for their own herd, but for zebra, antelope and many other species as well. When an alarmed giraffe suddenly turns tail and runs, other animals instinctively flee also, “presuming” that the giraffe is running for a reason, like having spotted a lion in the distance.
So too, the most valuable organizational leaders are reliable, insightful partners who play a “sentinel” role that benefits not just their own “herd” but a wider range of stakeholders. Organizations are enmeshed in complex, interdependent webs of stakeholders: partners, suppliers, vendors, communities, and the broader environment on which all depend. The old-style leader might have thrived as a siloed, hunkered down figure who focused only on his/her own department, organization or industry. The new leader will have the foresight to see what’s coming and the commitment to help other stakeholders prepare for the emerging future.
A second lesson: Be ever-flexible, adapting your role and team to the task at hand: Interestingly, researchers don’t yet fully understand the organizational dynamics of giraffe herds. Unlike baboon packs, where the alpha male relentlessly asserts his control, it’s less easy to discern overtly hierarchical behavior among giraffes.
Similarly, the wise and self-effacing leader learns when to assert leadership from the front, and when to hang back with the “herd,” taking the team’s pulse, and nudging this or that team member to the forefront for a given project.
Indeed, giraffe herds have even more to teach us more about orchestrating teams. It turns out that a herd’s membership sometimes fluctuates: Newcomers may temporarily drift in, while others drift out. Similarly, because the complexity and nature of organizational challenges ever changes, leaders must master the art of pulling together multi-skilled, multi-departmental teams for each unique task that arises, re-configuring work teams fluidly to meet each successive challenge.
Third lesson: Be ‘great-hearted,’ a caring, brave, and energizing leader. The giraffe’s heart is astonishingly powerful, a bio-mechanical marvel that nature has engineered to pump blood vertically to the brain through that long, long neck.
And for us managers? Consider how taxing, discouraging, and downright exhausting today’s workplaces have become for so many employees, and let the painful realities of modern work inspire you to cultivate all the qualities that the literary imagination has ever associated with being “great hearted.”
For example, be courageous enough to keep plowing ahead when solutions are elusive and obstacles abundant. Be caring : focus on your colleagues’ lives and careers, not just on your own. And be an energizing force in de-energizing moments, the organizational life blood that revitalizes the team when motivation and morale flag.
A final consideration for those who aspire to leadership excellence. Giraffe life sure looks easy when one observes these graceful animals placidly grazing on the savannah. They didn’t need graduate school, apprenticeships or training programs to develop their long neck, powerful heart, and great eyesight.
In contrast, the leadership traits outlined above don’t come naturally for you or me. Rather, developing one’s leadership gifts is hard work that continues and even intensifies as one rises in an organization. But what worthy work it is, considering the unique opportunity of managing others and helping them to flourish. So, get your giraffe figurine, work hard and lead well.
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