Those of us aspiring to be better leaders can learn from the animal kingdom. This is a fable about how animals evolved their traits to survive in the wild. Leaders, too, need to evolve to thrive in the corporate jungle.

In the beginning all animals were equal. But lion discovered his magic first. And he decided he wanted to be king. So, he used his magic and grew a long mane about his head. This made him look bigger, bolder and more ferocious. He grew long teeth to rend and tear. His legs grew long and powerful. At the end of each he grew sharp claws. He could make his voice sound like thunder. His mind became cunning.

Lion strutted down a path where he found baboon. “Baboon, bow down to me; I am your king” lion declared. “I will certainly not,” replied baboon, “we are all equal.”

Lion roared and pounced. He clamped down on baboon’s face with his sharp teeth. “Bow down or die.” Baboon whimpered and agreed. So lion walked away proudly. Then baboon discovered his magic, learning to crawl high into trees and so escape lion. He called for the colors of the rainbow to cover the scars on his face. And that is how baboon looks even today.

Then lion saw zebra. His strong limbs sprinted to zebra and lion knocked him down.  “Zebra, bow down to me; I am your king.” When zebra hesitated, lion slashed his side with sharp claws. Zebra, crying out in pain, agreed; so lion moved on. Zebra discovered his magic and called upon the ground to yield black ochre to cover his wounds. To this day that is how zebra looks and helps him hide from lion.

Then lion saw giraffe. He ran up to giraffe roaring for submission. Giraffe just trotted away. In his anger lion tried to bite him, claw him. But giraffe’s legs were too long and lion could not reach. But lion was cunning, so he left. He hid in the tall grass by the stream and waited until giraffe came for a drink. Giraffe awkwardly bent his knees and lowered his head to drink. Then lion sprang on him. Given no choice, giraffe agreed that lion would be his king; so lion left. Giraffe discovered his magic and called on the sun to give him spots so he too would be hard for lion to find. And that is how giraffe looks to this day.

While elephant ambled in the tall grassland of his home, his animal friends forewarned him about lion. Elephant discovered his magic.

Lion found elephant and demanded, “bow to me elephant, I am your king.” But elephant’s large ears had heard lion, so he was prepared. “Don’t be absurd,” he said and he waved his large tusks to keep lion away.  But cunning lion climbed a tree and leaped onto elephant’s back. He clawed and bit, but elephant’s thick hide did not tear or rend and elephant shook lion off.

So lion waited near the stream in the tall grass until elephant became thirsty. But elephant used his long trunk to water. And when lion rushed at him elephant blew a trunk full of water over lion. With lion’s mane matted down he didn’t look so ferocious anymore. Embarrassed, lion relented.

And that is how lion became king of the jungle. But lion respects elephant and leaves him be.

Human don’t have magic, unless you consider stopping unconsciously at the curb moments before a car zooms by, or looking up from your instrument panel just in time to stop your car from crashing, as forms of magic. But this story is really more about traits, not magic. In business, we refer to these traits as competencies. Leaders develop competencies over time. However, just as lion was unsuccessful in applying the same competencies to dominate all animals, leaders also apply the same competencies developed early in our career unsuccessfully to the complex business challenges encountered later in our career. 

In the lion fable, rather than assess how best to dominate elephant and use traits better designed for the new situation, lion used all the same traits that were so successful against the other animals. Perhaps if he had lured elephant into a tar pit, he could have assumed dominance by helping elephant get out. Maybe he should have challenged young elephant, who had no tusks and thinner hide. I suggest leaders take the same approach and utilize new skills. Here are a few competencies that leaders need to master in order to successfully formulate successful business strategies:

Discernment: Strategic decisions usually have no right or wrong answer, because most options under consideration are good. Selecting the best solution is the challenge, which requires incorporating a large number of factors with uncertain ends. Sometimes some facts strongly point to one solution, while others point equally strongly towards another solution. The competency required to address these types of complexities is discernment: that is, identifying the relevant factors, determining whether to accept or dismiss them, and evaluating their impact to select the most successful strategy..

Patience: Early in our career we are rewarded for making quick decisions. This usually works when the answer is simple to evaluate. But as decisions become more complex, patience allows us to delve more deeply, identify the nuances and develop more innovative and comprehensive solutions.

Listening: Junior managers often work alone. They rely on their own intelligence, training and experience to make decisions. However, because a strategic challenge is so complex, many different corporate disciplines must be involved. Only by melding the expertise from different groups can the best strategy surface. Listening is the key to leveraging the expertise of these different disciplines. It is common for sharp executives to begin forming a response to another executive’s comments well before the team member is finished speaking. This failure to listen usually leads to misunderstanding and delays to the decision. A good listener can lead the team’s progress towards success.

Conflict management: When we start out our career we are afraid of conflict. Almost everyone we deal with has an impact on how fast we are promoted, so it’s just better to get along. Yet, constructive conflict can stimulate the higher level thinking that helps leaders develop a greater understanding of the issues and uncover innovative approaches to solve them. Conflict can  reveal winning strategies to the company’s complex problems.

These are a few competencies crucial for forming a successful business strategy, which is as important for today’s leader, as lion’s claws or elephant’s tusks.