Sunday, February 14, 2016

Animals in Leadership

Leadership is a popular topic to discuss (and let's be real, complain about) no matter what field you work/volunteer in.  There is no limit to resources when it comes to learning how to be the best leader.  But what IS leadership?  I mean, beyond just what makes a good/not-so-good one, what IS IT when someone is in charge of overseeing a group?

Just don't say it out loud.

See I think as zoological professionals, we have a unique insight into leadership. This especially goes for those of us who care for social animals, specifically mammals (and I'm sure there are other species included, but I'm just sticking to what I know best).  When we care for and interact with social mammals in their groups, we really get to see Who's The Boss.

It's really common for us to attempt to scientifically label the animals in our care as "dominant", "submissive", "sub-dominant", or maybe even use older-school terms like "alpha".   We talk about dominance hierarchies as a collective, too.   There are a lot of reasons why it's useful to identify the various social places of the animals we know and love, especially in a training scenario.  Understanding a group dynamic means you provide the best possible care for the animals.  How?

As an example, knowing that Dolphin A and Dolphin B are absolute the bestest friends in the whole wide world......until a football is in the water, at which point Dolphin A forgets said friendship and decides to go after the football, but not before letting Dolphin B in a not-so-nice way that she oughta stay out of her way. BECAUSE IT IS DOLPHIN A'S FOOTBALL. SHE CALLED IT.  IT'S HERS.  NO ONE ELSE'S.  GET IT?

Knowing this means you won't set those animals up in a situation like that, and/or you'll use positive reinforcement to teach Dolphin A to be a lot more polite in that situation.

Let's just all be friends.

We on the marine mammal side of the zoo field get a lot of criticism regarding how dolphins "treat" one another in human care.  Any aggression is often explained by our detractors as evidence that the animals are unhappy or in improper social groupings.  Of course, aggression - like the one I described in the aforementioned example - is a complicated topic.  Aggression is not simply I DO NOT LIKE YOU THEREFORE I DESTROY YOU.  It's also not I AM IN CHARGE AND TO REMAIN THERE I WILL DESTROY ALL OTHERS.  It can occur for those reasons, but in the majority of cases there is a lot more that goes into it.

Play NICE, Dwight!

Setting aside the biological fact that animals do aggress on each other (this also includes dolphins, in the wild and in zoos/aquariums), today's blog is less so about aggression and moreso about the "dominant" animal.   In some of our minds, we think that those two topics are not mutually exclusive.

Obligatory photo of wild dolphin with lots of rakes.

For example, we often say, "Oh, Kevin bit Squiggles because Kevin was establishing his dominance." 

Another wild dolphin with tons of rake marks

We probably know Kevin and Squiggles well enough to hazard a guess as to who is more in charge than the other, but all the same, do we really KNOW that Kevin was establishing his dominance?

I ask that because in many of the dolphin groups I've had the honor of caring for, most of the dominant animals are actually not aggressive at all.  In fact, one dolphin in particular rarely displayed any sort of aggressive behavior towards the dolphins.  So rarely in fact, I can only think of one time in five years that I saw even a slight precursor.  It was a jaw-pop, which is sort of a, "HEY! You! I'M WATCHING YOU" kind of gesture, in dolphin-world. 

Fun fact: I've seen this movie 9,000 times.

This includes male dolphins, who are not delicate when it comes to rough-housing with each other even in the most playful of scenarios.  In fact, in one group, the most dominate male was only obviously such when he was interested in the ladies.  But this dolphin was an old, simple-minded fellow who occasionally got confused by his own shadow (yes, seriously).  He did nothing observable to us humans that put the other two adult boys "in their place", even during breeding season, unless someone tried to mess with him mid-coitus (so can you really blame him? I mean really).  But there was something about this old fellow that commanded the calm respect from the others.

Let's think about human leaders in our own lives.  I don't just mean bosses, either.  I mean the people in our social, professional/academic lives who we admire and really respect.  What traits do they have?

Syntax capability notwithstanding

For me, the best bosses I've ever had were ones who had a great sense of humor, were very fair, went out of their way to show their team members how valuable they were, were willing to admit mistakes but also knew how to respectfully assert themselves when needed.  They lead with compassion, intelligence, and humility.

That's how a lot of my family members and close friends are.  Sure, they're not "in charge" of me, but I go to them for advice.  I trust them to help me through tough times....which still very much falls under the Leadership Umbrella.  And they share the same qualities my best bosses have.

Confident, respectful, and kind people make fantastic leaders in all respects.  No one is scared of them, but they are willing to do pretty much anything for/with them.  They don't need to use aggression to maintain their place at the acme of their company, team, family or social group.


But some are a little more uh, challenging to follow. Out of fear, we follow....until we find a better option.  Just as in humans, there are some animals who rule with an iron fist.  But just as in humans, animal dominance hierarchies are not set in stone, nor are they simple or the same.

Ain't nobody gonna respect you, little angry leader bird.

The other thing is, just because an animal is on one rung of the social ladder in one group, does not mean they'll be there in another group.  Submissive animals may only be that way because they are either willing members of a leader's group, or maybe because they aren't "allowed" to act as dominant.  They also may be like that simply because the group dynamic isn't quite the right fit for that individual.  Put them in a different situation, and BOOM, they may be more dominant.  Similarly, a dominant animal may play the opposite role with a new group of pals.

Additionally, the process of "becoming" a leader or a follower (or whatever you want to call it) does not necessarily have to follow some step-by-step method, as we are often used to describing when we think about animal behavior.  It is often much more fluid, subtle.

Let's think about this from a human perspective, being social mammals and everything.  What is YOUR role in your group of: coworkers, close friends, acquaintances, immediate family, strangers, children, etc.?  Is it really the same for all of them?

I think our ability to be "dominant" often depends on the group dynamic, not just our own abilities.  


For me, I have to find my place in any new social grouping.  When I start at a new job, even if I'm in a position of leadership, I'm not immediately yelling at or biting any of my new coworkers to establish my position.*  When I'm with my immediate family, I have 32 years of being in a particular social that's not likely to change.  In one group of close friends, I'm the loud-mouth with the hare-brained ideas.  In another, I'm the one who just follows the person I think is more of the leader.  See what I mean?

Aggression is not a catalyst for dominance. In fact, I think it's freaking AWESOME to watch a calm, confident leader in non-human animals and how others respond to him or her.  The entire vibe of the clan is totally chill, too.  The animals who have chill leadership are often chill themselves.  There is a lot about that we can learn as humans, too.  As my new boss says, happy trainers make happy animals.  I'd tack on that happy trainers make happy trainers, too!

What animals in your lives have shown you their leadership qualities?  Did you watch them develop?  How have they inspired you?

* Unless they prevent me from eating snacks, in which case yes, I will bite them really, really hard.

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