We can pick a few leadership lessons from animals

We can pick a few leadership lessons from animals

leadership lessons from animalsGeorge Bernard Shaw made the following observation: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” 

Flipping through my WhatsApp messages, I was captivated by one video post in which, lions were collaborating in a hunt. I paused to watch what was a really intense moment of life and death.  The lionesses took the lead, with their matriarch seemingly guiding them along every step. A dazzle of zebras, fifty meters away, were unaware of the plan. In a split second, the lead lioness crushed one zebra into the ground. The rest joined to finish the job.

As the zebra wriggled for its last breath, a male lion appeared with a roar that sent the lionesses scampering for their lives. Although the male lion takes the leadership responsibility of the pride and was part of the strategy, its role in the kill is often minimal. Often, males have been known to drive the targeted animals towards the ambush of the lionesses, but they always appear to unfairly benefit from the kill more than the real workhorses, hence the phrase, “the lion’s share.”

It struck me that this was analogous to life. That no matter how history repeats itself, we always elect leaders who tell us the same things our grandparents were promised. At independence, leaders told us that we elect them so that they can bring development. We always expect them to build roads, schools and hospitals, but then the unexpected always happens. Is it possible that we are incapable of learning from experience?

In the lion kingdom, it is expected that male lions will eat first, followed by the lionesses and the cubs last. As we work like lionesses and taking salary cuts, some of our leaders have other intentions. Since March, Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of County Assemblies (MCAs) have been quietly pushing for more allowances although some of the allowances they want were scrapped by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission. This is in total disregard of the prevailing conditions of stalled global economies as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I have since discovered that even in the animal kingdom, some animals’ behaviour patterns are better than that of lions. I watched a pack of wild dogs hunting a gazelle. Their strategy centers on stamina and positioning themselves in such a way that they can eventually wear out the fast-moving gazelle. Once they manage to make the kill, they share the meal peacefully and even remember to take the meat to their elderly, the injured, the sick, cubs, and the caretakers that didn’t join them in the hunt.

The leadership of a pride of lions and a pack of wild dogs determines the outcome.  Many of the leadership theories come from studying behaviour pattern in order to predict leadership outcomes.  Prior to the advent of Western civilisation, Africans had their own methods of choosing their leaders.

The process often took very long as the community studied the behaviour patterns of potential leaders – sometimes based on lineage – but what they sought to know was always if the person had the interests of the people at heart. This they referred to as Mtu wa watu (Swahili), Omonto bwa abanto (Kisii), Mundu wa andu (Kikuyu), part of the Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu) worldview.

There is no direct translation of these words but they are variously thought to mean a person with humanity in them or in other words an empathetic person who has a worldview that is larger than himself. Africans could see these qualities in a young person who will go through apprenticeship for several years before they take up leadership.


Dylan McGarry says that apprenticeship is perhaps the oldest form of education and is closely related to transformative leadership and intergenerational learning, as traditionally it consisted of the transfer of knowledge from skilled (usually older) and more experienced members of society to younger generations. Parents too were supposed to take their children through apprenticeship.

It is this leadership process that we have destroyed in favour of other approaches to leadership development assuming that traditional education as we know of it today will produce the leadership we want. In leadership, it is not how much education you have or how little educated you are. It is how much humane you are. It takes time to see this in people before they are bestowed with leadership.

There are indeed theories of leadership that come closer to the old African model of identifying and apprenticing leaders. J. Robert Clinton carried out several studies of Christian leaders—Biblical, historical, and living. His work, The Making of a Leader, centered at formulating a method of identifying the incidents involved in the development of a leader’s capacity to lead, which he referred to as leadership emergence.

He eventually realised that “a great leader is shaped over a long period of time, and that this formation is not automatic”. He defined his theory of leadership emergence as “the overall process in which God is at work in selecting that leader. It is the broad lifetime process in which a potential leader expands capacity for influencing to become the leader God wants him or her to be.”

Further, he noted that throughout the life of a leader, certain incidents happen that shape the leader’s character, leadership skills, and leadership values. This is not a one-off thing, but an ongoing process. His conclusion was that “Leadership selection is a lifetime process in which God continues to ‘select’ leaders for leadership responsibilities at higher and higher levels.”

The kind of leadership that we have is one where individuals force themselves into leadership positions based on either money or education. The outcomes have always been disastrous. As we approach the 2022 elections, many prospective candidates are busy looking for consultants to identify issues in counties where they plan to run for office.

Many have no clue about the history of their constituencies and care very little about the problems of the people they want to lead. They say their money will give them the seat. That is not the leadership we want.  Such leaders just want to be the king Lion, which eats before those who are more deserving. Let us be more thoughtful as we make our electoral decisions this time round.

Bitange Ndemo, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.