Camilla Gray-Nelson

Camilla Gray-Nelson

Thoughtful working woman contemplating female leadership
The advances in female leadership in the workplace have been admirable and exciting, but statistics tell us there are lingering obstacles

From the Farm to the Firm – Insights for Female Leaders.

I’m an animal behavior expert, but my special interest is in helping women become more effective leaders by tapping into Nature’s model of female leadership in the animal world.  With that in mind, I decided to check in on how women are doing in today’s workplace.

The Stats

The advances in female leadership in the workplace have been admirable and exciting, but statistics tell us there are lingering obstacles to women in the workplace earning the same respect as their male counterparts.  In fact, a 2013 Gallup study showed even though respect for women bosses has increased over the years, a significant percentage of both males (26%) and females (39%) still prefer working for a man over working for a woman.  It was also interesting that this preference was greater for the women polled than for men.

When Quora recently asked men about having a female boss, there were still a number of recurring themes in their answers:  

  • Women will overreact rather than take effective action, which creates a more hectic work environment and staff resentment. (a recurring theme)
  • Women will micro-manage petty tasks but ignore more serious issues (a recurring theme) 
  • Women are more difficult to work with than male bosses (a recurring theme)
  • Men are better listeners and trust delegating, while women are too autocratic and rigid.
  • Men are more logical and solution-focused than women.
a significant percentage of both males (26%) and females (39%) still prefer working for a man over working for a woman.

How Nature Works

Since my expertise is in animal leadership and group dynamics, I thought it would be interesting to lay out this unique perspective on leadership, in case it could be illuminating and of help to my fellow female bosses.

The animal world is a model of sustainable and efficient group dynamics.  But more than this, the ways in which animals relate to each other, how they identify their leaders and reach goals as a group with minimum conflict may hold tremendous lessons for us human animals.

In Nature’s model, a simple hierarchy featuring understated power at the top and acceptance of certain behavioral boundaries at each descending level creates a peaceful yet productive unit.  Those individual animals with the greatest ability innate leadership traits naturally take the lead and the others in the group trust and accept their legitimacy and willingly follow.  

But what determines leadership ability and traits in animals?  How can an experienced animal observer identify, just by watching behavioral “tells”, exactly which animal in a group will be the leader?  And all without a single argument of fight taking place to establish a “victor?”

“Tells” 

Just as a trained professional in law enforcement or psychiatry can identify “tells” in human’s body language or behavior which indicate they are lying, so, too, are there “tells” in animal behavior that identify to the others in the group who among them is a legitimate (or illegitimate) leader.  

Contrary to what you might see on television or online, leaders in the animal world are not chosen by fighting or mortal combat.  Power and authority are telegraphed in much more subtle ways.  The same is true for leadership imposters.  Could herein lie the secret for women who want greater respect and effectiveness in their own leadership roles?

Nature’s Power Tells

“Tell” #1 –  Posture

Leaders in nature are often among the tallest in the group.  Standing tall and erect with chin up not only makes us stand as tall as possible, but sends an unspoken message to others that we are confident and capable.  Poor posture in all its forms can send just the opposite message, one of uncertainty or even subservience.

Tell # 2 – Focus

An true animal leader is particularly good at maintaining their attention on the task at hand, regardless of distraction.  They are singularly focused on a desired outcome and intent on achieving it.  Conversely, the animal that is easily distracted by “bright shiny objects” or one thing after another is not leadership material in the animal world.  

In human terms, a boss that jumps from one topic or goal to another and does not demonstrate the ability to focus on or achieve each goal, may find their leadership legitimacy questioned by subordinates.

“Tell” #3 –  Voice Tone

Leaders in the animal world are not shrill.  They are measured and thoughtful in their actions, vocalizations and body language, exuding an air of confident strength.  High-pitched or shrill vocals from an animal indicates fear or trauma, like a puppy that will squeal if someone accidentally steps on its tail or a rabbit or deer that is being attacked by a predator.   

It is said that Margaret Thatcher, before winning her way to the Prime Minister seat in England, took voice lessons to lower her pitch.  And when we look at notable female leaders through recent history, many if not most spoke in low, deliberate tones.

Even if it’s not fair, a high-pitched voice in a female leader can be an unintended “tell” – one that might subconsciously lessen her respect or trust from others.

“Tell” #4 – Emotional Control

Perhaps the most telling of the “tells” when it comes to leadership capability is the ability to control one’s emotions.  A true Alpha in the animal world rarely “lose” their temper.  Even in occasional displays of aggression against a challenger, their actions are deliberate and intentional, never out of control.  In fact, animals will not follow a reactive or emotional individual.  Those are wanna-be’s.  The truth is that hot heads are never as revered as the cool and calm ones.

Getting angry at work and letting it show can be a devastating “tell” for human leaders and one that can predictably damage their respect from others.

Tell #5 – Fewer Words, Not More

Though animals do not speak, per se, the highest leaders are the most “economical” when it comes to their behavior and communications. An alpha dog will make its case once and expect to be heard without repetition. Lead bulls or even lead cows don’t often run; they saunter.  They don’t micromanage; they let others make decisions within broad behavioral boundaries and just step in when those behaviors cross the line.

The animal that barks and snaps or kicks and squeals in a continuing effort to control others is seen by its peers as weak and inconsequential.  They are not only ineffective, but disrespected, ignored and often despised.  

A human that feels the need to repeat themselves over and over or fill uncomfortable silence with more talk may be guilty of what I call “verbal fidgeting.”  Fidgeting of any sort, whether physical or verbal, tends to reveal a lack of confidence and hence, can be a “tell” of weakness for any boss.

“Tell” #6  Calm and Understated Follow-Through 

Animal leaders have no qualms about following through when a boundary is crossed or a rule is broken.  It is this certainty of follow-through that yields respect from subordinates.  Note that respect is not the same as fear.  Fear has its root in the unknown; one’s inability to predict or prepare for a bad outcome.  Consistent follow-through by a leader is predictable, understood and best of all for subordinates, preventable.   Having subordinates that believe that follow-through will always occur if necessary, is what makes a leader effective without resorting to coercion.  

Understated follow-through means that the animal leader has no need to over-react or over-consequence.  The most effective follow-though in animal leadership is the least serious action that stops the unwanted behavior and prevents it from reoccurring.  Animals don’t like to fight, so they don’t over-do.

Failing to follow-through or enforcing rules too harshly or punitively can be a “tell” on a human leader’s possible weakness.  

“Tell” #7  Unafraid

Animal leaders are not afraid to take bold action.  They are unafraid to take calculated risks.  Unafraid to face problems head on.  Unafraid to address issues with subordinates.   They do not hem and haw, do not look for ways to avoid and do not spend weeks analyzing their options.

For human leaders, being careful is one thing.  Being afraid to take action can be another “tell,” and not the one that they would want.

“Tell” #8  Likeable

Here is the best kept secret about animal group dynamics and leadership:  Contrary to popular belief, the highest performing leaders in the animal world are often the most personable ones (if we can use that term with animals.)  Their subordinates actually like them.  When life is clicking along nicely in the group, the leader is interacting pleasantly with the rest and they are enjoying being in the leader’s company.  

Being crabby, prickly or generally unapproachable does a human leader no favors.  Being unlikeable is another, subtle “tell” that they are not the leader they could be – or that they are afraid to be.

In Conclusion 

Power in the animal world does not belong to the 4-legged species alone.  Humans are animals, too!  Nor does power belong solely to the male of the species.  Nature has its own model for female power and leadership in her own right, but the “tells” of power are the same for all.

Female leaders in the human world might take valuable lessons from the animal world.  In examining our own difficult leadership experiences, can we relate some of our challenges to the silent “tells” described above?  Do we lack focus?  Have we been too emotional, a little shrill when we speak, talking too much, micromanaging, or avoiding difficult situations that need our follow-through?  Do we lack a little courage or have we assumed we need to be a little prickly in order to be taken seriously?

In my own experience, I can vouch for these animal secrets being the foundation or my own leadership successes – once I recognized and put them into practice.  Together with the wisdom of Mother Nature, we can move forward and rise.

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Photo of author Camilla Gray-Nelson

Camilla Gray-Nelson

“No, I’m not your average coach or mentor, but that’s exactly why you should follow my unique perspective on life, love and career! I promise I’ll share things you won’t learn anywhere else, helping you become Enlightened, Empowered and Effective by decoding the life-changing secrets of Mother Nature herself.”

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