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Lion? Eagle? Or… May 8, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As a leader, what kind of animal are you? Of all the members of the animal kingdom, which one demonstrates the very best qualities of leadership?

My predecessor, a very good CIO, once had the opportunity to answer this question. He was invited to speak as part of a leadership panel, with an audience of several hundred fellow IT executives. The moderator had provided some of the seed questions to the panel in advance, so he had some time to think about his response. He actually did some research and came up with the perfect answer.

Now, most people are quick to answer this question with “lion” or “eagle.” Lions, of course, have great strength and sit near the top of the food chain. Although naturally lazy, especially the males, the lion’s leadership aura has been greatly enhanced by teams of Disney animators and the fact that the best lions apparently sound a lot like James Earl Jones.

An eagle is a better choice. Soaring high above the landscape, eagles have great vision and react quickly when detecting prey or enemies. Unfortunately, eagles are pretty much loners and do very little actual leading of anything. Although Disney has not yet made the equivalent of “The Eagle King,” the eagle gets good PR from being on money and various state and national seals.

The real answer, as my friend discovered, is the giraffe. Before you scoff, consider: the giraffe is the tallest animal, able to see threats at great distance. Other animals rely on this skill, gathering near the giraffe to capitalize on its early detection ability. As a result, the giraffe is recognized by all the other animals as a natural leader. Just as a good leader looks to the horizon to guide their team, a giraffe brings safety and surety to the world of the other herd animals. Giraffes, in fact, see the lions long before an attack is possible. Giraffes are also too large to be carried off by an eagle, or even a team of cooperating eagles, should the eagles ever get their act together.

So my friend went into the panel discussion sure that he had the killer answer. The moderator poses the question, and much to his astonishment, the guy next to my friend answers “Giraffe!” He goes on to explain all the great reasons, and the crowd is suitably impressed. When the moderator turns to my friend, all he can say is “I chose giraffe, too.” Even though we knew he had, half the audience was thinking “yeah, right.” Who would say “eagle” after hearing the great giraffe answer?

So today’s blog offers not one, but two crucial bits of leadership advice. First, when you get the question about the best animal leader, you know now that the answer is “giraffe.” And two, make sure you get to answer first.