As some of you may know, my former career was as a biologist focusing on ecology, reptiles and marine ecosystems. But I have always been a wilderness freak and my favourite place on earth for an experience of real wilderness is Africa. The first time I stepped off a single engine airplane onto a dirt landing strip in Botswana I knew that this was the land of our ancestors. All our DNA and primordial memories come from this exotic and wild place. We are all linked to Africa in multiple ways that shape who we are and why we act as we do.
But rather than continue on with biology and ecology, I got fascinated with human social systems in the workplace (not too different from primate societies some of my colleagues would say!). So for nearly 40 years I have been interested in corporate culture and culture change in particular in national and international corporations, and in big and small companies. The fact that I built and ran an international consulting company for 23 years means that in many ways I have a practitioners view of corporate culture and not an academic view.
And normally my blogs are about corporate culture, culture change and leadership behaviours inside of global businesses. But today’s post is about a different kind of culture change; in a specific group of elephants in Mozambique, Africa. It may sound like a far departure, but the lessons learned are, at least in my mind, applicable to corporate culture as well.
Gorongosa Reserve and the Civil War in Mozambique
For 15 years, 4 months and 4 days, from 1977 to 1992, the African country of Mozambique was in the throes of a deadly civil war between multiple warlords and their externally funded armies for control of the wealth of the country. In the process it is estimated that over 1 million innocent people, men, women and children were slaughtered, often in grotesque ways.
To fund their armies, the warlords ordered his troops to kill elephants for their ivory, which sold on the black market helped to buy weapons and ammunition. One of their main killing grounds for slaughtering elephants was Gorongosa Park.
Gorongosa National Park lies at the southern end of the Great African Rift Valley in the heart of central Mozambique. The over 4,000 square km park completely surrounds Lake Urema and includes both fertile grasslands and wooded plateaus.
Prior to the civil war there were an estimated 40,000 elephants in this area. Today, they number around 360! The good news is, thanks to American philanthropist and dedicated conversationist Greg Carr and scientists such as elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole, plus hard-working local anti-poaching rangers, the elephants are breeding again and there are plenty of babies to be found among the various herds.
What I find fascinating about the elephants in Gorongosa Park is that normally, elephants aren’t aggressive towards humans, unless of course they have been hunted and slaughtered mercilessly, as was the case for 15 years during the civil war. Today, nearly 20 years after the end of the civil war in Mozambique, the elephants in Gorongosa display significant aggressive behaviour towards humans, locals and tourists alike. They learned to be wary. And even though many of the young elephants were not even born during the strife, they have learned this overly aggressive and wary behaviour from the adults who survived.
One matriarch who leads a rather large herd in the park has the front part of her trunk missing as a result of a snare set out by poachers and troops years ago. She also has a crumpled right ear, making her easily distinguishable. Due to her traumatic episodes during the civil war period, she is not only wary and aggressive, but has also taught all the newer elephants in her care this same set of behaviours.
I immediately flash to the work of Dr. Leandro Herrero, expert on social behaviour in business organizations and his finding that culture (how people show up and how they behave in companies) is highly influenced, not by slogans or vision and values statements nor speeches from upper management, but from the role models they are closest to, their immediate supervisor, boss, or in many cases, the highly respected informal leader of the team or work group. New employees come into the company and are quickly acculturated into “how things are done around here” by these respected informal leaders.
Most corporate cultures aren’t driven from the top but are actually a collection of subcultures, each highly influenced by informal and highly respected individuals inside the work group. Humans are social beings and learn behaviour inside social groups. Seems that elephants are also social animals that learn their behaviour from inside social groups.
Lack of Tusks
Another interesting change going on in the elephant herds in Gorongosa Park has to do with the lack of tusks. This is not a culture change, but more a change brought about by selective pressure. It seems that most of the killing of elephants during the civil war was for ivory, to sell in order to buy weapons. Thus over the years those elephants with a genetic predisposition for large tusks, were killed, leaving those with genetics favouring smaller tusks to survive and breed. Thus a case of human selection, not natural selection (aka Darwin), has brought about a dramatic shift in the make up of the elephant population in Gorongosa.
it occurs to me that, similar to natural selection and other selective pressures reshaping the physical attributes of a species, such as the tusklessness in Gorongosa, corporate culture works on a similar principle.
New employees come into the company with a variety of behaviours and attitudes towards work and their job. Through the social pressure exerted by immediate bosses and respected informal leaders, certain behaviours are encouraged and others are discouraged, to the point where over a rather short period of time, these become “new work habits” and thus form a strong “subculture”.
Looks like my early career in biology and ecology wasn’t entirely wasted on my current activities as an advisor to CEOs, senior teams and organizations on culture change and leadership development.
We have a lot to learn from nature and animals, so we better support those like Greg Carr and Dr. Joyce Poole, and the countless other conservationists who are battling to keep mankind from destroying the natural environment.
Here is a short film about Gorongosa Park:
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!