Nature’s Business: Leadership Lessons
Sanctuary web columnist and Biomimicry Communicator Anjan Prakash shares leadership lessons from the greatest teacher of them all – Nature.
Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam.
You can either see hope in the world, or you can see despair. You can either rise to the challenge and bring about change, or bundle yourself up in fear of the next mindless environmental clearance. You can either allow the leader within you to rise, or sink under the burden of the immense task ahead.
Whoever we are, this is not the time to give up. It’s the time to show up. The baton is now in our hands and we must win this race to survive. Luckily, the solutions are staring us in the face. Through biomimicry, nature is already inspiring great designs and practical solutions. But it can also teach us winning leadership skills and how to build better businesses. Here are some examples I have culled from 3.8 billion years of nature’s pure genius.
NATURE'S SENSE OF PURPOSE
Each year more than a million East African blue wildebeest start the largest overland migration in the world, to coincide with the annual pattern of rainfall and grass growth. Roughly 1.5 million individuals undertake an almost 500 km. long journey overcoming all obstacles. We can learn two lessons from the wildebeests:
Swarm intelligence, better understood as self-organisation: Within an hour of spotting a rain cloud, the wildebeest self-organise and kickstart a common direction of motion – a characteristic wave-like form. They adjust the distance between each other so as to function, for all practical purposes, as a single unit. The older, larger animals stay ahead of the group, so the younger ones are protected. They even take turns sleeping, while others stand guard against predators. Self-organisation is fundamental to their survival.
Linearity, persistence and ‘un-distractability’: Obstacles come in the form of predators, fatigue and depleting resources. But this does not dissuade them from their long migration. They lose several young ones. Many are injured. But their focus on the larger mission drives them on year after year.
Leadership lessons to be learned here: Can organisations create simple rules with a shared purpose that allows a team to self-organise and function efficiently? Can we take turns to watch each other’s backs, so the predators discover that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?
BUILDING AND LEVERAGING NETWORKS
When Dr. Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology, who has studied communication between trees, said: “A forest is more than what you see,” it changed the way we perceived forests. We learnt that trees benefit from ‘underground intelligence’: a mycorrhizal network, using fungal threads growing among tree roots, spreading out for hundreds of kilometres, virtually connecting all trees in a forest. Important lessons emerge from this ancient network:
Building win-win relationships: Through the literal ‘wood-wide web’ (perhaps the oldest ‘Internet system’), trees exchange nutrients and information. When young trees are low on nutrients, the mother, or hub trees as Simard calls them, send excess carbon through the network to the young understory. In turn the mycorrhizal network obtains carbon and sugar from the trees, which the network cannot produce for itself. When one tree is attacked by insects, it releases chemicals that are carried by the fungal network to other trees, which then gear up to protect themselves (they even release warning chemicals in the air). By investing in this symbiotic relationship, they create a highly resilient ecosystem.
Creating short feedback loops: When strong networks are built, they facilitate excellent feedback loops. Short feedback loops between trees using the mycorrhizal network allow them to quickly respond to problems such as ‘insufficient nutrients’ or ‘insect attacks’ by switching to the right strategies. If the feedback loop is too long, altering the strategy becomes tougher.
The leadership lessons that emerge here point to the need for organisations to focus on creating win-win relationships. Another clear lesson is that cooperation trumps competition as a successful survival strategy in nature. ‘We’ over ‘I’.Can we build shorter feedback loops in our systems so that when a call for action is required the network responds instantly and effectively?
Photo: Anirudh Nair.
NATURE CREATES CONDITIONS FOR SYSTEMS TO PROSPER
Salt-tolerant mangrove trees and shrubs are keystone species for coastal ecosystems, which are harsh and subject to rapidly-changing conditions every single day. Despite such adverse circumstance, the mangrove ecosystem thrives. There’s a lesson in resilience here:
Build from the bottom-up and readily provide ecosystem services: Starting life as a seedling, the propagule finds the right spot and establishes itself on a shallow bank of sand. Soon the prop roots emerge, slowing the force of water and allowing sand to settle. This creates more habitat for still more seeds to settle and grow. In time, a mangrove swamp is self-generated. This provides a nursery for fish, crabs and a variety of freshwater-saltwater flora and fauna. The trees also offer nesting sites for shore birds and the soft soil supports snails and clams that enrich the soil with nitrogen and biological matter. All this further enhances the ecosystem. And it all starts with a seedling that slowly but steadily creates useful cascades that end up crafting a rich ecosystem, which allows uncountable other species to prosper.
Advantage of niche specialisation by leveraging disturbances: High salinity, oxygen deficiency, water-logged soil, tidal pressures, strong winds, and sea waves are major disturbances. But over millions of years, mangroves managed to leverage such turbulences by evolving niche specialisations. For instance, they are able to remove excess salt from their roots through salt glands in their leaves. They developed prop roots that allowed for gas exchange. They even managed to master the art of viviparous reproduction. All survival strategies, designed to cope with hostile situations.
The leadership lessons are obvious. Can we turn our organisations into nurseries and breeding grounds that encourage and nourish diverse talents? Can we look at disturbances as opportunities for out-of-the-box solutions that help us grow and thrive instead of retreat into defeatist, fearful shells that end up in collapse or failure?
The examples are as limitless and diverse as life on Earth itself. I have only quoted examples from the survival strategies of three organisms, but a pattern arises across all organisms. Each strategy is time-tested and has led to flourishing, sustainable, million-year-old ‘organisations’ in nature.
Nature has handed each one of us a baton, crucial in time. How we lead, walk, and run, will make all the difference to our own survival. As for nature? She has managed somehow to successfully pass on baton after baton to a myriad species including Homo sapiens. With the batons, she passed on lessons perfected over 3.8 billion years. Can we comprehend and seize this wisdom?
Author: Anjan Prakash, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 6, June 2017.