Lions in the Workplace!

While in college I was a Zoology major.  One very interesting course that I took in that time was one called Animal Behavior.  It was an eye opening course in many ways, as it was about group dynamics more than anything else.

I remember a few very specific topics from that time.

One that was jarring to me that I remember to this day was about Lemmings.  Pop culture often makes reference to peer pressure causing people to act like Lemmings, who seemingly will follow each other right off a cliff to their certain death.  It puzzled many people, especially the original biologists observing the behavior.  The fact that later came to the surface that is actually little known in non zoological circles, is that the Lemmings were not just randomly following each other in a group suicide ritual.  They were running in fear of their observers and in doing so were so terrified that they all ran off the cliff.  It wasn’t suicide, it was fight or flight.  The flight won, and with no escape route, they ran the only direction they could, going off the cliff.

The other most notable animal behavior that I remember vividly was Infanticide, the killing of the infants and young in a group.  This happens notably in lion prides.  At first, observers thought this was a form of cannibalism, but then realized the young were just killed and not eaten.  It was related to breeding not to hunger.

In summary, (if you want the long movie version, Disney’s African Cats is a nice, gentle intro to the macabre subject), a lion pride has constant turnover in the pride when it comes to the dominant male.  He has a very short stint as the pride male, typically 2-3 years at most.  When a rival male conquers the pride, running off or killing the existing dominant male, he immediately kills all the cubs and adolescents.  Why???  The female lions will not breed while they are nursing young.  He can’t afford to wait until the cubs age and the females go back into estrous, so he kills them all, speeding up the cycle.  Then he breeds with all the females, they bear his cubs, and he tries to hold on for as long as he can to the pride to get his young to an age where they will not be killed when he is displaced as the dominant male in 2-3 years.  It’s about “fitness” at its pinnacle, you know “survival of the fittest”, the “fittest” being the most virile of the species.

So why is this relevant to business? Because many executives seem to use this modus operandi.

I just had a potential client who we were dealing with for several months.  We designed a bleeding edge system and hammered out a budget and design for several months.  They put the final system out for bid and we negotiated terms of receiving the job.  It was in the final throws of some menial paperwork when something happened.

Leadership change.

Did this leadership change result in new goals and needs for the organization?  No.  Did it change the need for the product or service being negotiated?  No.  Did it change the attitudes of the people that were going to be using the technology at hand? No.  So why did the brakes go on?  Here’s why:

It wasn’t the new leader’s idea.

There seems to be something in certain corporate culture that causes executives to behave like conquering lions.  They come into an organization, or move up in one, eager to put their stamp on the business.  They are so eager to be the conquering hero, that anyone’s current ‘”babies” are often killed in their infancy as progeny of the old regime.

The problem is that in corporate culture executives have longer life expectancies than do dominant males in lion prides.  The sense of urgency in the lion world is real, where in the corporate world it is often manufactured.  I acknowledge that some companies need to change direction to survive, but this phenomenon happens in successful and dying companies alike.  There is an expectation that the leader needs to take swift action on new ideas, just because he or she has taken the helm.  Often times there is time for the new ideas to be fostered and developed while nurturing the existing ones, bringing them to maturity, rather than scrapping months or years of others work for the sake of let’s face it, ego.

Am I off base?  I’d love to hear thoughts in the comments!

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One thought on “Lions in the Workplace!

  1. mikedorman says:

    very interesting analogy about a very real situation that exists too often in the corporate world. Too many times newly placed leaders see their job as to break apart anything that is … regardless of things that are working or not … and rebuild the organization. In today’s business economy this is often costly in actual dollars to say nothing of the impact on morale of those other leaders and the general employee base.

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