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Leadership based on the lion and the wolfpack leader

“The lion is a paradigm of efficient leadership and optimized self-management and thus a role-model for so many managers who want to get promoted,” explained the scientific author and bionics expert Matthias Nöllke from Munich, in his keynote speech at the tts Forum 2015 on the subject, “What managers can learn from nature”.

The lion’s three rules of success

For time immemorial, the lion has been the king of the beasts. He is a symbol of power, strong leadership and authority. Yet few people know that a male lion sleeps for up to 20 hours a day. In order to stay at the top of his pride, despite his relaxed lifestyle, he follows three rules:

  1. Do as little as possible yourself.
  2. Just delegate to professionals and control according to results.
  3. When necessary, show strength.

“There is strength in serenity” seems to be the motto of the lion. He delegates all tasks that others can do, or can do even better. Once the work has been distributed, he no longer meddles, but checks that the objective is achieved, and ultimately ensures a harmonious overall end result. In the pride, the position of leader is also fiercely contested. Therefore only those come to the top that can calmly sense when they must demonstrate their presence and reveal their strengths – for example, when young lions test out if one of them can disempower the “old” lion from his position as leader.

“First and foremost, managers can learn the benefit of comprehensive task delegation by observing the lion,” according to Nöllke, who has been focusing on management bionics for more than 20 years, as well as the question, what management and organizations can learn from nature. In this regard Nöllke does not assert that bionics proclaims “eternal laws of nature”. The examples from the animal kingdom are only metaphors that one should use as an impulse for further thought. Of course, there is a difference between a business organization and an anthill. Animals, for example, do not have nuanced languages, but examples from nature are often simply enlightening and can make it easier to grasp the essence of complex problems.

Dr. Matthias Nöllke

First and foremost, managers can learn the benefit of comprehensive task delegation by observing the lion.


Dr. Matthias Nöllke

Wolfpacks: the lieutenant takes care of the unpleasant tasks

Managers could however also learn something from a wolfpack, according to Nöllke. In particular, the alpha wolf or leader of the pack shares the leadership task with a “lieutenant”, the so-called beta wolf. The beta ensures that the group rules are adhered to. The leader of the pack keeps out of this for the good reason that if he had to punish lack of discipline himself, this would only damage his popularity. The person at the top should only meet with positive sentiments. Therefore the lieutenant must be someone who has no problem with being hated. The beta wolf is, as the humorless controller, the “wolf in wolf’s clothing”.

For the leadership with distributed roles model to work, it is necessary that the boss and his lieutenant act in concert and do not work against one another. It should however be clear to the lieutenant, according to Nöllke, that he will never be able to become the boss’s successor, because nobody will entrust him with the boss’s necessary but countervailing leadership style.

Successful strategies must also be reviewed on a regular basis

“In nature there is an incredible variety of strategies for rising to the top of the herd, or how you capture the best prey,” Nöllke explained. At a higher level, managers could in particular learn the following from animals on the subject of hunting: each strategy that has proved successful to date must be regularly reviewed and modified, as it will only work for so long. The competition, or the potential prey, will adjust to each success strategy of their opponents after a while and develop ways to counter it.

Asked to name his favorite animals, Nöllke said that he liked the dwarf mongoose. These are small feline beasts of prey, rather like a marten. They live together in groups of up to 30 creatures. At the head of the clan is an alpha female. And when an animal in the clan gets sick or injured, the alpha female takes care of those affected in person. In other animal communities those that suffer an injury are often excluded. But the dwarf mongooses must survive in very harsh conditions and cannot do without any of their family members.