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5 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn From Our Animal Friends

Both new and experienced leaders can learn from the animals around them. Here are five important lessons from naked mole rats and beyond.

Written by
Eve Robinson

There’s a lot to be learned from our animal friends. So says Julie C. Henry, author of Wisdom from the Wild: The Nine Unbreakable Laws of Leadership From the Animal Kingdom, in the latest episode of Good Together.

As denoted by its title, Henry’s book utilizes insight from the ways of wildlife to comment on human team-building, cooperation, direction, and more. Henry’s own career as a leadership consultant came after years spent working as a senior employee at zoos and aquariums, making her uniquely qualified to meld the wild and professional worlds. The author shares how both new and experienced leaders can learn from—and be inspired by—the creatures around them, from naked mole rats to termites.

"If you just look outside, everything needs to be different in order to survive and to work together," says Henry, highlighting the importance of valuing the strength of our differences within team environments. She adds that successful leadership is often about resilience, adaptation, will, and decisiveness. "Leadership abhors the absence of a decision. Make that decision not just to survive, but thrive, and you will not just live to see another day, you'll be better for it."

Here, five of Henry’s core leadership lessons, as illustrated by the wild world around us. 

5 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn from Animals

1. Sea Turtles and Purpose

The Lesson: Don’t overthink things. Be driven by your purpose.

Sea turtles have roamed the planet for more than 100 million years. Throughout their lifetimes, sea turtles travel thousands of miles searching for food and a mate before returning to the beach where they first hatched. According to a study from Current Biology, sea turtles mark the magnetic signature of their birthplace and use the Earth’s magnetic field to guide them back. 

While we can’t use an internal magnetic compass to keep us on track, we can trust our instincts. "Can you imagine being in the middle of the ocean, it's dark, you don't know where you're going, and you're swimming?” asks Henry, who notes that the turtle doesn’t think too hard, instead focusing on its inner purpose. "There's a point when you're a leader that it gets hard. It just does. And I'm sure it does for that sea turtle as well. But if you dial back into why did I start leading this change, that will help you get through."

2. Naked Mole Rats and Teamwork

The Lesson: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to teamwork.

Naked mole rats are more than just strange-looking rodents: the highly functional creatures use the power of numbers to create successful colonies that allow them to thrive. They rely mostly on smell and touch to detect food sources and danger, thermoregulate with their colony, and distinguish nest chambers from toilet areas or food chambers in their underground burrows.

Along with their innate teamwork, Henry finds inspiration in the mole rat’s unassuming existence in the animal kingdom. "When we first discovered naked mole rats in the 1800s, they were so bizarre and so unusual looking that we, as scientists, assumed that they were a mutation and we should just ignore them," she says.

Despite their early dismissal, naked mole rats continued to thrive in sophisticated, complex ways—regardless of the haters. When you’re intentionally designing your team, taking chances may result in an even more successful group. "Your team of naked mole rats can accomplish even more because they're different," says Henry.

3. Cheetahs and Self-Pacing

The Lesson: Know your limits so that you can show up at your fullest capacity. 

The world’s fastest land animal is often perceived as little more than that: a speedy predator that dominates the track. Often overlooked, however, is the cheetah's commitment to the rest required to properly execute those bursts of speed that they’re known for. In fact, cheetahs spend about 90% of their day resting.

Henry considers the cheetah and the concept of resilience—even the sort represented in quiet moments—as foundational to her unbreakable laws. 

"The idea of cheetahs slowing down is a biological principle that should bring you comfort as a leader," says Henry. "It should also give you that permission and that motivation to set the boundaries where you need to, because the truth is you if you can't show up as a whole self as a leader, then you're not going to have the impact you are actually designed to have in the world."

4. Giraffes, Termites, and Diversity

The Lesson: Diversity and synergy are essential for survival. 

The African savannah is home to giraffes, zebras, and copious termite mounds. If the final mention feels random to you, well—that’s kind of the point. Though small, unassuming, and underground, termites are responsible for the success of the savannah’s ecosystem, creating mounds of green by fostering decomposition and refertilization. 

According to one study, “close to termite mounds, plants grow more quickly, herbivorous and predatory animals are more abundant, and reproductive output is greater than is true farther away from mounds.”

"Giraffes and termites, while they might not look like they need each other, do meet each other," says Henry. "I've had to realize in this situation, I'm the termite and they're the giraffe. And we need each other to advance this cause."

5. Coral Reefs and Solid Foundations

The Lesson: A solid team requires a solid foundation. 

Coral reefs—endangered due to overfishing, pollution, and coastal development—are foundational to our environment. And while shiny objects (Sharks! Barracudas!) often distract swimmers from this essential ecosystem, it’s the reef that you're standing on, swimming through, and generally ignoring that houses the real magic.

"Coral reefs are what 25% of the marine life is. If they disappear, literally a quarter of the marine life is going to disappear," says Henry. "So what are your foundations? What are the foundations that you have a tendency to gloss over? Because I'm telling you, they are more important than you even realize."