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Leadership Lessons from Out of Africa


0In November I had the wonderful opportunity to go on safaris in Botswana and Zambia.

I was totally fascinated by the behaviours of the African animals in the wild. To some degree these mirror the social behaviours and experiences of human beings and offer great lessons on leadership in our business and personal lives.

Here are some things I observed whilst on safari:

  • The safari guides are there with a purpose to “disconnect you (i.e. from Wi-Fi) to reconnect you”. The freedom of space creates a metaphor where you are left with your own thoughts and heightened capacity to be mindful, and disconnected from the outside world.
  • The unpredictability of the journey: in the wild, death can occur at any time.

The cycle of life and letting go: groups of elephants are led by the matriarchs, followed by the younger and baby elephants, and supported by the males at the back of the herd. They protect their babies to allow them to grow, and teach them throughout their early years. Once the younger elephants become teenagers the parents teach them how to survive and mate, and then they let them go so they can separate and begin to start their own family groups. In turn, they are expected to look after their elders.



  • The quietness is where the learning comes from unexpectedly… in the introspection, the sitting, the waiting and the listening.  It occurs organically, sometimes, with a sudden rustle or roar from a hippopotamus in the overwhelming heat, sometimes with the sudden appearance of animals needing water to survive or suddenly moving to another place… the constant worry of the big drought but the acceptance of this reality. Both the guides and the animals know they need to adapt to survive. Quietly confronting, the giraffes appear tall and elegant and walk towards their predator, the lions – to let them know they are around given the lion’s success is based on surprise.



  • Leadership is all about not knowing: increasingly leadership is about the unpredictability of the current and future environment. With constant surprises, adaptability is a prerequisite for today’s aspiring leaders. 



When I returned to Sydney with its traffic, pollution and day-to-day struggles, I marvelled at how we, as such an advanced species, are also dealing with the same issues as our friends in the wild – family and leadership, the need to be flexible, adaptable and prepared for change and, most of all, the need to develop greater resilience to deal with the unknown.



Leadership is really about instilling in present and future leaders the tools they need to survive and become better leaders so they can positively affect the lives of others, which will in turn significantly impact on organisational performance.

The culture of the wild illustrated by the protection and leadership found in elephant herds is equally applicable to human behaviour. The development of a meaningful culture in today’s organisations is not simply a nice objective to strive for but essential to their long-term survival.



Here is an acronym to help describe the unpredictable elements in life: VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It was created by the US military in the late 1990s and is now used as a descriptor of our current geopolitical and macro-economic challenges as well as what leaders face inside organisations.

Change is inevitable and so, like our friends in the wild, the only way for all of us to survive is to adapt and flourish. If we turn VUCA around it can be setting a vision, providing understanding and clarity, and of course authentic leadership.



So, how can we adapt a VUCA world for challenging situations?

  • Communicate clearly and ensure your intent is understood
  • For uncertain situations, get a fresh perspective and be flexible
  • For complex situations, develop collaborative leaders and stop seeking permanent solutions
  • For ambiguous situations, listen well, think divergently and be attuned to opportunity for incremental change.

In order to embrace new possibilities to deal with the challenges facing organisations, we have recently strengthened our partnership with the Centre for Coaching, an international group specialising in major change programs, with offices in South Africa and Europe. More news on this exciting initiative will follow over coming months.


Best regards,
Virginia Mansell

About the author: Virginia Mansell, Executive Chairman, Stephenson Mansell Group.

Virginia Mansell is an expert and thought leader in executive coaching, mentoring and leadership.  She is the author of The Focused Executive, an important resource for CEOs and senior executives determined to perform at their very best. The 2nd Edition is now available with a new chapter on high performing teams.

In 1998, Virginia established The Mansell Group to provide coaching and leadership development services.  In 2005, she merged this business with The Stephenson Partnership to create Stephenson Mansell Group, arguably Australia’s longest-established executive development firm.  Over the last fifteen years, the Stephenson Mansell Group has worked with 5000 executives in more than 500 organisations in Australia and internationally including 30 of Australia’s top 50 companies.

In addition to her own experience as a business leader, Virginia brings to her role over 30 years in human resource management, counselling psychology, psychotherapy and organisational consulting.


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