I recently was tasked with analysing a case study which profiled an innovative start-up that briefly rode the wave of its innovative product to only shortly after meet a noteworthy trough due to dysfunctional leadership. This indeed is a very unfortunate episode within their story, but, as I recently learned, it is a common occurrence in our dynamic age where innovation blooms like bluebells within the digital forest of technology. In this short essay I aim to draw out the "röda tråden" (a personally admired Swedish expression, akin to the "core reasoning") as to why this tends to happen and how we can prevent it in future. As I quickly pen down this synopsis, my kids are role-playing an African tale in our little apartment, mimicking their chosen animals, and I am in fact indebted to them. The penny drops and the proverbial "elephant in the room" collapses from a wavefunction of thought to something tangible. Our guide to better leadership resides within the mind of an elephant. Please join me on this curious endeavour as we peer into the mind of a Matriarch.
Elephants - A Sentient Capacity for Connectiveness
In my humble eyes, defining the stage of an early-stage startup is akin to arriving very early to a London theatrical. The lights are in place, but the mood is dynamic and there is much commotion about jobs that need to be done. It is likely that there is too great an emphasis on the backdrop or there are plenty of trip hazards which demands vigilance from the crew, but ultimately, there is one role that is imperative in navigating this eclectic ship forward; this is the director of the show. Not only does he/she produce a strategic vision, that subsequently connects the multitude of tasks, the director also embodies the embryonic character of the show’s core essence.
Without the wisdom that comes with age and experience, many capable startup directors can temporarily fall prey to the pressures of capital growth and equity expectations, and subsequently, their character can temporarily morph into an archetype that is not conducive to their role1. The case of the travel company Away, is not an isolated example, so let us take a moment to reflect on the nature of leadership. As humans, we often overlook our inherent biased reference point and have a common tendency to only peel the bark of knowledge before learning its deeper roots2. Before starting to define our own subjective notion about what constitutes optimal leadership; let us briefly review what reference cases exist beyond our own hominoid sphere of existence3. The great plains of the Serengeti might sound like a peculiar backdrop to this educational exercise, but nature has a habit of exchanging its secrets only in return for persistent curiosity and patient observation (as shown in the life of Dame Jane Morris Goodall DBE)4. For this, we must meet it in the wilderness where it resides and simply observe.
Any brief study of a local ecosystem, whether observing the birds that visit our gardens throughout the year to the diving patterns of marine mammals within the vast oceans5; we quickly learn that nature is an immensely complex system with intricate interdependencies between both flora and fauna. One stark example of this resides within the life of an elephant. Unlike many mammal species used in personality studies (apes, hyenas, macaques), elephants are neither despotic nor individualistic in their reproduction or social interaction, and thus dimensions of personality in elephants are linked to traits that their human observers perceived as reflecting cooperation and intelligence6. But it seems that not much is known about their true intelligence. Recent studies suggest that they posses advanced numerical cognitive abilities, surpassing those of primates7. Within its large grey frame resides a near sentient capacity for connectiveness; whether an annual commemoration of lost herd members (and even befriended humans)8 to authentic acts of leadership during trialing times, there is much we can learn from these magnificent creatures.
“Lawrence passed away, somehow, aware of his death, the groups of elephants he had protected walked many kilometers to his home to come and pay respects. By some amazing unexplained connectiveness of nature, the elephants were aware of his passing and felt the need to demonstrate their respect.”8
To lead a herd of elephants, one has to manage strategic social interactions with other herds, navigate the herd to location specific resources and empower your peers to learn skills that are conducive to resiliency and long-term survival9. This role is undertaken by the matriarch. The matriarch is the oldest and most experienced female in the herd. But contrary to our hierarchical tendencies, she manages her momentous task through a specific style of leadership. Let us review the scientific landscape to try and unpack this archetype and tether it to a leadership style that we can relate to.
Lessons from a Matriarch
“We cling to hierarchies because our place in a hierarchy is, rightly or wrongly, a major indicator of our social worth.” - Harold Leavitt
Social worth is defined within a herd of elephants as the value that an individual has to the group. This can be based on many factors, such as their ability to provide food or water, their ability to care for young, or their ability to protect the herd from predators. Much like Elephants, humans define social worth within society by looking at how much somebody contributes to the community. This can be done in terms of how much they work, how much they donate to charity, or how much they help others. However, the trajectory of our leadership structures seemingly diverge with elephants even at this early stage. As humans we share remarkably similar fractal-like organization and hierarchical scaling ratios with social networks amongst other mammals10, but the approach of our leadership is notably divergent with the matriarch. For the matriarch, leadership is associated not with being at the front or “leading” a group, but rather with influencing movements and direction6. The matriarch seemingly never exercises her legitimate power, but would rather resolve disputes in a more egalitarian manner and only intervenes personally within a minority of cases. A recent study demonstrated how non-matriarchs initiated 70 percent of the observed agonistic interactions between family units, matriarchs intervened on behalf of the recipient in only 18.3 percent of these events9.
The matriarch seemingly espouses both authenticity and referent power, which collectively, is a powerful mechanism of conflict reduction within the herd. There seems to be a clear correlation between the leadership traits of a matriarch and behaviors that seek to improve and maintain the social structure, motivation, and team well-being11. To link to relatable role taxonomies, an equivalence of this would be a hybrid between roles such as Team Builder (including sub-roles such as Harmonizer) and Visionary/innovator roles12. This referent power that the matriarch commands is substantiated by her age and experience, which is actively shown in her ability to identify threats11 and selecting the collectively optimal path through water-scarce terrain13. It is clear that young elephants recognize the safe psychological climate provided by an older and wiser matriarch, which can collectively help them handle challenging times. Recent studies have shown how the lack of an older social stratum within the herd has been correlated with trauma-induced neuroendocrinological compromise within young males, increased aggression, decreased maternal skills and infant neglect14. The matriarch also actively emphasizes social learning with other larger herds, which is a remarkable manifestation of wisdom; ensuring that her younger peers gain social skills and peer-informed knowledge which are key to survival15. Much like a learning organization, the Matriarch seemingly encourages a social structure that institutionalizes the creation, acquisition, and cooperative transfer of knowledge. Her emphasis on social cohesion and her flexible decision making is also seemingly aligned with a clan culture, in accordance with the Competing Values Framework16.
Elephants demonstrate cooperative behavior with attention to their partner’s presence and actions, thus showing a well developed propensity toward partner-oriented, deliberate cooperation.17
Juxtaposing The Matriarch’s “Connectiveness” with Our Leadership Heritage
Leadership has been a topic of interest throughout history. Early examples of leadership can be found in ancient texts, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. In these stories, leaders are often presented as military commanders or kings. As time progressed, other texts began to explore the concept of leadership in more depth, such as The Prince by Machiavelli and The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In more recent years, leadership has been explored in fields such as psychology and sociology. A broad review of recent literature would demonstrate that there is a growing trend towards servant leadership, where the leader’s primary focus is on helping others to grow and develop. This is a style of leadership where the leader puts the needs of others above their own and seeks to serve them. This is in contrast to more traditional models of leadership which tend to be more autocratic and focused on the leader’s own power and status.
There are many examples of servant leadership throughout history. One example is Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Indian independence movement against British colonialism. He advocated for nonviolent civil disobedience and was an inspiration to many other leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. Another example is Nelson Mandela, who fought against apartheid in South Africa and was the country’s first black president. He also advocated for nonviolent resistance and reconciliation. But we could go further back in history to a moment which was radically counter-cultural in many respects18, including leadership approach. The leadership style that Jesus Christ demonstrated was servant leadership. This was evident in the way that Jesus always sought to help others, even when it meant going against the grain or risking his own safety. He was also willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others, which is the ultimate act of servanthood.
But given the collecive benefits of servant leadership, it is natural to question why has it not been more prevalent. The idea that great leaders create space for their subordinates to thrive and flourish seems logical and is not new. However, as history has shown us and unlike a matriarch, servanthood is unsurprisingly not a natural instinct for humans. In a radical servant leadership model, the leader is at the bottom and the followers are at the top. This can be a difficult concept for many to accept, especially if it means letting go of traditional hierchical power structures.
As hypothesized in stewardship theory, a culture which is more egalitarian and has a low power distance is expected to be more conducive towards developing servant leadership within an organization because the relationship between leader and follower is based on a more equal footing19. The servant-leader’s focus on empowerment will create a climate were decisions are made in a process of information gathering and where time is taken for reflection20. Thus, employees feel safe to use their knowledge and are focused on continuous development and learning. The stewardship characteristic of servant-leaders is exemplified by their focus on building community. We can also infer servant leadership is an altruistic leadership style that potentially contributes to the development of positive attitudes in followers, most notably Organizational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB)20. This positive correlation of atruism with the well-being of followers is not only limited to teams, it also correlates with societal well-being across global nations21.
“Connectiveness” - A Critical Aspect of Leadership
Collectively analysing these inferential findings enables us to connect the Matriarch’s leadership to a certain leadership archetype. It is clear so far that the matriarch’s embodiment of connectiveness would demonstrate that she espouses a leadership style that is dedicated to servant leadership. Her intuition tells her that this approach to leadership, which is more altruistic rather than egotistic, will foster the greatest collectively ability for her herd to cultivate creativity and resilience against hardships22. There is great widsom in this since recent studies are only starting to unpack how servant leadership can promote follower trust and representing the collective, which in turn fosters employee creativity and team innovation23˒24. From STEM25 startups to larger matrix orgainsations, when teams experience servant leadership, they are more likely to exchange learning by supporting each other in performing common tasks but it also fosters greater process clarity26.
The idea that great leaders create space for their subordinates, to connect seems logical and is not new. To many human leaders, unlike for a matriarch, connecting is curiously, a rather complex instinct. As a leader your connection to your subordinate is a unique one, and while connectiveness is at least a two way dynamic, it is in the hands of the leader to create the space for this connection to evolve27. Trust, tasking, affirmation, coaching, empowerment and authentic care (not just about the employee as an employee but as a person you are connected to) are all elements which build this connectiveness. Using the revelations from the life of a matriarch, we can infer that an authentic servant leader brings people together to solve a problem or accomplish a task. This leader would also intentionally build relationships with others and creates a strong sense of community.
The Hallmark of Authentic Servant Leaders - An Altruistic Calling?
The economic cost of poor leadership can be difficult to quantify, but some estimates suggest that it can be as high as $600 billion per year in the United States alone. This figure includes the cost of lost productivity, lower morale, and increased turnover. But what we can infer is that finding authentic servant leaders that will better serve society has a significant economic value.
In recent times, it has become apparent that populism has been leaching into leadership domains, which bares the outward appearance of servant leadership but there are fundamental differences. Servant leadership espouses a leadership approach with a moral compass for freedom and ethics, that builds on the real needs of the people (which is also synonomys with populist leadership), but does so in a way that strengthens (instead of weakening) democracy and democratic institutions within society at large28. Populism can resemble servant leadership in some dimensions, but the latter emphasis on morals and the ethical wellfare of the person is a key differentiator28. What we can infer from this is that servant-leadership is not at all prescriptive, but like many leadership styles, it is highly contingent on the leader’s innate character29.
One of the key hallmarks of authentic servant leaders is an innate altruistic calling27, which differentiates it from the dimensions of Fry’s spiritual leadership22. One additional benefit of servant leadership is that followers reciprocate their leaders’ support, akin to how a matriarch within a herd cultivates potential successors amonst younger females6. This essentially creates a cascading cycle of influence that affects leadership, organizational climate, follower attitudes, and performance20. But its success is also contingent on the correct management of anti-thetical sub-cultures, such as machiavellian behaviours within followers. Within this leadership remit, it would be essential to publicly take a strong stance against exploitative manipulative behavior by clearly mentioning that those who are found guilty of engaging in these behaviors will have to face serious consequences.30.
But where do we find such altrustic leaders and how do they view the world? Let us turn to Henry VI’s Play by William Shakespeare;
Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep,
And in his simple show he harbours treason…
No, no, my sovereign, Gloucester is a man
Unsounded yet and full of deep deceit.
William Shakespear had a very poetic way of saying how we must look beyond the outward appearances and look within. True altrusim is a trait that reflects a deep desire to help the other, regardless of the personal cost and moral courage demanded. Let us take a glimpse into the emotive core of an altrustic person in the modern era:
“I see the whole world as one living body, basically. But not our world only: the whole universe. And I’m like one of the cells. I’m as much a part of that as others. Without me, the universe doesn’t exist anymore that my body exists without its cells. I think that we are as much together as the cells in our body are together.” (Bert Bochove, Dutch Rescuer)31
I believe this empirical verification contains a deep philosophical significance. We are seemingly interconnected with our present reality more than we currently dare to acknowledge and comprehend32˒33˒34. Interestingly, as mentioned earlier in this article, it seems that the matriarch acknowledges and enacts this connectiveness more than we currently do8.
“To animate evolution in its lower stages, the conscious pole of the world could of course only act in an impersonal form and under the veil of biology. Upon the thinking entity that we have become by hominisation, it is now possible for it to radiate from the one centre to all centres-personally” – P. T. De Chardin35
It is no suprise that many people may find altruistic callings through creeds that extend beyond the self36, such as religion37 or spirituality. Whilst others may find this calling through other means such as volunteering, activism, or simply helping others in their everyday lives. Regardless of how the calling manifests, a core essence of altruism is ultimately a part of every human being38, but in some adults, it continues to grow and be fruitful. And this is a crucial point. Not only is an altruist better able to bring the absolute best out of a team (within the context of servant leadership), an altruist is also better able to operate cross-culturally without ethnocentric prejudice39.
As I bring this short essay to a close, my hope is that future post-secular societies can benefit from the fruits of servant leadership; with matriarch-inspired altruists at the helm, we can cultivate greater resiliency and creativity against the headwinds of life.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and godspeed. /Aaron