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Learning leadership from wild dogs in Namibia

Learning often comes from unexpected sources. The past weekend was a case in point. Observing the behaviour of wild dogs at a waterhole at a game lodge in Namibia, I soon realised that leaders can learn a great deal about leadership from wild dogs.

Making my way on foot to a hide on the lodge’s premises, I observed a pack of 25 wild dogs on the other side of the water hole. Their path was blocked by a pod of hippo standing on the bank. There was a stand-off for a few minutes, while the hippo ushered two of their young into the water, refusing to allow the pack of wild dogs to pass, until their young were safe.

The dogs were not intimidated by the hippo, and eventually were able to pass between the hippos. The lesson for leaders, is that even though there are obstacles, in one’s path, you must never lose sight of your vision – you must persist until you are able to progress in your journey. In this case, the leader of the pack wanted to lead the pack along the wall of the waterhole to the opposite side of the wall, right in front of our lodge.

The path ahead was treacherous – their journey in total was probably around 800 metres and there were crocodiles and game fences on the dam wall.  Most of the pack passed the hippo, however three or four dogs, the flank, remained on the opposite bank, as back up, support, if strategy changed. As leaders, do we always have a plan B that we can action immediately, if plans change or new opportunities arise?

The alpha dog paused as he confronted the first crocodile. He ventured nearer, backed off, ever vigilant and ready to react – fearless leadership, and leadership from the front. His pack (followers) trusted him – he was a trustworthy leader as he led with confidence, but with responsibility. As a leader, he recognised that he needed to scan the environment constantly for threats and danger. How many leaders inspire this sort of confidence, and how many leaders constantly scan the environment, always facing the risks head-on, always protecting their people?

It was fascinating to watch the pack. Some followed their leader immediately, others were nervous to pass the large crocodile lazing on the river bank.  However, as they observed the rest of their pack do so successfully, they eventually followed suit. The pack worked together, coaxing the more timid dogs, inspiring them to do things that they would never have done on their own. One cannot underestimate the role of leadership in mentoring inexperienced team members and encouraging them to engage outside their comfort zone. One should also never underestimate the value of role models and team work.

There next major obstacle was a large water pipe. We doubted whether they would be able to navigate their way past this. They knew there were crocodiles in the river, and they also seemed to know that the electric fence at 30° or so, was electrified. We were nervous, if you’ve ever done agility training with your dog, you know that dogs are agile and can jump over obstacles. The staff reassured us that dogs had been shocked by the fence previously and were, therefore, very cautious. They also reassured us that the power was definitely on at all times, and very reliable – they glibly explained that they do not rely on Eskom for their power.

The leader and his pack sniffed around looking for new ways to navigate so that they could get closer to the lodge where the dam wall was much lower. You could see them thinking, problem solving looking for a solution, working as a team.

We wandered back to the deck overlooking the waterhole. A few minutes later, we observed the tips of dog ears as they mounted the bank, perhaps ten metres away. Working together they had found a solution to get closer to the lodge. Perhaps they’d hoped to find lunch. They’d obviously heard that kudu sirloin was on the menu.

I was impressed by the fact that because something had not worked previously, did not deter them from trying again. They reminded me of Thomas Edison who famously said that he knows of 9 000 ways that do not work to light a light bulb. As leaders, do we do enough to teach our team never to give up and to continue trying even in the face of defeat?

The pack eventually made their way back to the other side of the waterhole. They were clearly hungry and in hunting mode. As they sun dipped we saw them disappear over the horizon, in search of a new adventure, a new opportunity to find supper.

I felt humbled and deeply privileged to learn such valuable lessons about leadership from wild dogs in Namibia.

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