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Leadership Lesson from Lions of Maasai Mara, Kenya

A male lion is sitting on the top of the rock in Serengeti nation park,Tanzania

I just returned from a 16-day trip in East Africa, and there were two things that I loved most: first, meeting the people of Kenya and Tanzania and the opportunity to learn about different cultures; and second, the experience of observing and being with all the different animals and birds that live in the game reserves of this region. I’m still on a high from all the take-your-breath-away experiences, although one stands out for its parallels to human leadership.

We were in Maasai Mara, which is a 600-square-mile game reserve in Kenya that connects to the Serengeti. My niece Megan and I were sitting in an open jeep (as opposed to a closed jeep) with our guide, Chris. The type of jeep is important to note because an open jeep has no windows and the side walls are low – you’re very open to the outside, and it’s very freeing. Also, imagine sitting in an SUV without walls, stopped at a traffic light, looking down, and seeing a cheetah right next to the SUV. It’s super cool, and a little unsettling, and a much different experience than a closed jeep.

About five other jeeps had caught up with us because we’d just discovered a pride of nine lions. We were about 15 feet from the lions, watching them relax under a bush, when one of them noticed some zebra in the distance. She got up and started moving very slowly in the direction of the zebra. She moved about 15 yards, stopped, and waited. Then, a few of the other lions took notice. Another got up and moved slowly toward the zebra, going off on a slightly different angle. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, each of the nine lions spread out into this amazing formation spanning about six football fields, each in its own position, each laser focused on the same goal, and all executed brilliantly without any communication – or at least without communication as we know it. They were synchronized like a team that had practiced this formation hundreds of times. They didn’t question each other or get in each other’s way, because they were all focused on the same goal … and they’d danced this dance together before.

We watched the lions and their formation for about 75 minutes; by then it was getting dark and our guide said we needed to head back to camp (although in truth we weren’t disappointed to miss what appeared to be a very big dinner for nine lions!) But here’s the part I loved – there was a 10th lion, the dominant male, the head of the pride. Guess where he was during this whole showdown?  Sleeping under the bush. He never got up once. We saw him look up a few times to see his team moving into position, he looked out to where the zebras were, and besides that, he just let his team take care of what needed to get done. I loved that!

I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this:  the lions reminded me of two important leadership lessons.  First, the importance of building high performing teams to organizational success; and second, the idea that overmanaging (micromanaging) and undermanaging are both ineffective ways to lead, at any level of an organization. Yet even when the stakes are high, we continue to get “in the way” in some way, shape or fashion (usually with all very good intentions). And incidentally, we were out with our guide again the next morning and we ran into those same lions. They all had some pink coloring on the fur around the neck – they had achieved their goal.

If you are looking for help in how to more effectively lead your team and empower them more often, reach out to Cathy Gaynor at cathy@getemergent.com – we’ve got a public Emergent Leader class coming up this fall. No guide required.

Keep leading!

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