Nature inspired leadership

The human being is a learning organism. Our self-perceived superior intellect on earth has made us believe that we know best, and if not, can learn from our theories, our experience, our places of higher education and our peers. However, we keep forgetting to learn from the greatest master who had time to perfect things for millennia – nature. The purpose of nature is that is designed to create conditions conducive to the life of future generations. The choice, as Kathleen Allen puts it, is to be a part of nature, or apart from nature. 

Biomimicry or biomimetics have been used extensively in engineering to find solutions to problems, create new inventions and innovations, and transfer this knowledge to technical systems. Biomimicry has, however, seen limited application in leadership and management. Nature tells our leaders to be self-aware. We cannot do it all alone. Nature gives feedback on capacity, control and problems. Nature operates on interdependence and connectedness.

Andres Roberts state that human principles vs nature principles indicate that: 

  • Human systems are hooked on growth; nature grows as well, but in cycles
  • Our human mantra is “winner takes all” (maximise), nature is also very competitive, but keeps the balance of the whole (optimise)
  • Being successful is measured in human systems in a linear view of production and consumption, success in nature is about regeneration
  • Humans see the world as something to be controlled, in nature webs of relationships are important
  • In human systems the head office is the ultimate power, performance is dictated, in nature there are no head offices, no performance plans
  • Humans manage change , in nature change happens not by pushing, but by making room
  • Human leadership is about command and control, divide and rule, whilst in nature bio-leadership focuses on find, connect, illuminate, and nourish
  • Old systems of cause and effect hold back the human-led organisation, and avoid potentially disastrous collision of systems, nature is guided by emergence – it does not know what will happen if systems collide, but adapt to what emerges

The question is how should we learn from nature to change our leadership practices? The aim of nature inspired leadership is not to produce a copy of what is observed, but to extract principles which can be applied in the corporate environment. 

  • Trees in a forest are competitors for getting the same nutrition from the soil, but they live collaboratively through an interconnected fungal underground system. 
  • Among mammals leaders gain a direct benefit from their influence on collective behaviour. For example, lactating female zebras initiate group movements most often because of their increased physiological needs (good grass).
  • A pack of hyenas is led by a dominant female. High-ranking female hyenas lead in warfare because they have the most to gain from increasing their territorial boundaries in their female-dominated societies. 
  • Kin-related leadership is forced by lionesses that protect relatives from intruders within their free family groups. 
  • Flock leadership recognises potential for interacting parts of a community or system to self-organise into a coordinated, energised whole leadership role as creating space for the parts to interact while guiding and ingraining the norms of interaction.
  • Nature inspired emergent collective behaviour is evident in schools of fish, herds of land animals, and flocks of birds.  
  • A swarm of bees that have to move from the hive to accommodate population growth does this by individual bees communicating locally with one another. Scouts then explore the area, and back at the hive communicate quality of a discovered nesting place through a dance that signals distance and direction of the new site and the intensity of the dance refers to quality of the site.  No individual has an overview of the different options, but all the information held by individuals contribute to the final decision.
  • Migrating birds follow a multi-leader system. Each individual adds to a solution of the problem (navigation). The individuals share information among themselves that leads to cooperation. In typical V formation the leader bird shares information with the follower birds. The leader bird selects a few random neighbour positions. Each time a neighbour has a better solution, it is adopted by the leader. Follower birds now receive the best solution from the birds in front of them. This results in follower birds taking leadership positions over the original leader. 
  • The flight of a swarm of terns over the ocean or quelea finches on the dry semi-desert plains provide spectacular patters in the sky. The rapid pace that these birds set and the quick changes in direction for the whole swarm are remarkable metaphors for leadership. 
  • Ants leave pheromones to guide other ants on the paths that they discover. Path selection in nature depends on the trails left by predecessors. Known paths will be connecting destinations in the shortest possible way, rather than path networks that effectively combine trails that are available but not used. New paths are formed when old paths are destroyed or where an individual breaks out of the norm. 
  • When foraging takes place in an environment where other organisms also feed, unique complexities arise. This includes competition and co-habitation. The outcome is shaped by scarcity or abundance.  Nature is in particular good at not over-harvesting. A foraging group develops a mind and identity of its own.
  • Elephants in nature live in herds under the leadership of a cow as matriarch, but bull elephants leave these groups and live separately while growing up and when becoming old. Members of a family group do things together, they forage, drink, rest and travel at the same time. They keep in contact through sight, sound and touch. Mature males live separately, often in small groups or even alone. Elephants communicate over large distances with infrasound. They are always aware of what others in the distributed herd are doing and even the old bulls that do not walk with the herd anymore are connected over distance.

When modelling anything on nature, one has to realise that all models are simplifications, which mean that nature itself as a complex system is not fully understood. A lot remains to be learned from nature, of which we are part. Connectedness, reliance, trust and common vision drives movement and habitation in nature. How are we going to learn this as human beings with our entrenched perceptions of what leadership is?

A few takeaways from the discussion session on 11 June 2020 are listed here:

  • Nature is an important inspiration for leadership and humans are interconnected with it and are part of nature. We have always learnt from nature, but we must acquire the ability to recognise new lessons from nature to build a better future.
  • There is one consciousness in the natural and human worlds, everything is just resonating at different levels.
  • It is time to realign human activities with nature to make it more sustainable. The notion of profit should change to prosperity, and sustainability to regeneration.
  • There must be balance between nature, humans and technology. Technology has become an intermediary that often separates humans from nature. Using nature based principles in technology design and application (biomimicry), strengthened by nature inspired leadership processes will close that gap.
  • Interconnectedness is a core principle in how nature creates harmony. As humans we are connected through spirituality. A larger divinity bonds humans and nature.
  • Human systems need calibration of what is important. Continuous renewal of human value systems is required. We must acquire the ability to, like nature, reset ourselves and our endeavours from time to time. Humans are perpetually restless and ignore seasonality. We need to align to natural cycles for work and rest and seasons for planting and harvesting and get a balanced equilibrium like nature.
  • We have to realise that as humans we are one of the largest changemakers to nature. We think we are only doing harm to nature, but we are also contributing to nature (e.g. logical conservation).
  • The quest for growth should be in breadth and depth. There could be a season for both. How do we use latent energy, e.g. like a tree in winter time, to resurrect our deep understanding and build breadth afterwards?
  • The difference in brain structure (existence of the frontal cortex) between humans and most of the natural species indicate that we can expand our minds through our higher thinking patterns, also as spiritual beings. We should learn from nature not by copying, but by contextual adoption and customisation.
  • We should always be mindful as humans of how nature would see us, then we will be able to learn more effectively from nature.
  • Different cultures will adopt lessons from nature in different ways. It depends largely on self-awareness.
  • Order in nature happens more by instinct and conformance, than as a result of ethics.
  • Humans are driven by incentives and have unlimited wants and needs. Nature uses only what it needs for the moment. Human nature is driven more by creating abundance and not sufficiency. This often leads to over utilisation and scarcity.  
  • Humans team up for specific outcomes, nature uses herding as a lifestyle.
  • Humans struggle with diversity, nature sees it as bringing a richness to the ecology.

We will run the Around the fire… Nature inspired leadership session again, depending on popular demand. Please indicate your interest by sending us a message from the Events page (click the button below).

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