Leadership Lessons from Baboons

Leadership Lessons from Baboons

November 13, 2017—Robert Sapolsky, the hirsute professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University, has been studying stress in primate populations for years (he is also a master lecturermany a classroom professor can learn a thing or two watching himbut, I rant…). Sapolsky has identified five characteristics of baboons related to how they handle stress (anxiety) that I suspect are transferable to effective leadership.

Here are the five characteristics, with five leadership lessons from baboons:

  1. Baboons seem particularly adept at discerning a real threat from a perceived threat. Threat triggers anxiety and reactivitywhether it is real or perceived. The mere perception of a threat (among humans, even existential threat) raises the level of stress in the leader and in others. I once worked with a boss with paranoid tendencies. Even benign information, news, or conversations were perceived as potential threats. As his anxiety about these rose, so did the stress in those around him. Worse, in a perpetual attempt to be “proactive,” enormous amounts of energy and cost went into “preventive measures” for threats that would never come to realization. Leaders will do well to cultivate the capacity to discern real from imagined threats to the systemthen they can ignore one, avoiding reactivity, and confront the other as necessary.
  2. Sapolskly noticed that the most successful baboon leaders were initiators of action rather than being reactive. Effective leaders are good about knowing their systems and reading the emotional process at play. They can recognize patterns and anticipate what those signal. When they recognize a pattern that precipitates conflict or reactivity, leaders can initiate a mediating action and avoid getting reactive after the incident. Effective classroom teachers do this also. They develop the capacity of “withitness,” being the ability to see everything that’s going on in the classroom (who is paying attention, who is not; how many students are “on task”; who is passing notesor about to). This enables them to engage in a “desist” before conditions escalate to the point of being disruptive to the instructional and learning process. Even better, effective teachers are able to intervene with a “non-disruptive desist,” an action which addresses a misbehavior or blocks a potential disruption without itself causing a disruption.
  3. Baboon Alphas are good at displacing stress and anxiety. Sapolsky noticed that after stressful incidents, like conflict, baboons were good about displacing stress. Similarly, healthy leaders have the ability to leave the anxiety where it belongs, rather than carrying it as part of the job. Baboons displaced their anxiety by picking on a weaker member of the troop (not a “congress” as a group of baboons mistakenly often is called)which is metaphorically “kicking the dog.” Not a good idea for a human leader, but the point is the samefind ways to displace if not pass along the anxiety. For example, leave the anxiety about a problem with the person who is responsible for the problem, or, hit that old punching bag (a literal onenot that hapless staff member).
  4. They accept outcomes rather than stress over them. Sapolsky notes that baboons tend not to stress over outcomeswhether good or bad. If something does not work out as expected or desired, they just live with it. In other words, they can let go of the expectations of outcomes. There are two lessons for leaders here: (1) leaders cannot control everything. And while leaders must be courageous enough to take risks, they do so knowing that not every risk results in the outcomes desired; but that’s not a reason to avoid risk; (2) while leaders are responsible for bringing about outcomes in the organization, it’s the expectations that will do you in. Leaders cannot defect on matters of outcomebut they should guard their expectations. I consulted with a non-profit some time ago. The board set as a goal to increase customers and revenue by 10% the following year. I had to challenge them on their unrealistic expectations about that goal. They neither had the capacity to do what was necessary to bring about a 10% jump, nor could they afford the risk of attempting it. A more realistic expectation was 2% to 3% increases, but they still had to actually DO the things that would make that happen. Oddly enough, they were unwilling to actually do the things necessary to bring about the change.
  5. The leaders stayed connected with everyone in the system. It seems baboon leaders had learned the secret to winning friends and influencing others. Regardless of the nature of conflicts, leaders in the troop stayed connected to others at all levels of the system, those high and those low in the pecking order, and whether they were friend or foe. Perhaps one of the most important functions of a leader in any system is “staying connected” to individuals in the system. This includes those who are criticsthat is, the ones we want to most avoid.

To learn more about Robert Sapolsky’s fascinating work see this item from Standford and this one from the New York Times.
To learn more about handling your own stress and anxiety as a leader, join us at the Leadership in Ministry workshops, a post-graduate program of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to the Digital Flipchart blog.

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