Wolves & Business: A Story About Business Succession and Leadership

What can leaders learn from wolves

Table of Contents

Small systems changes can have a profound impact on our organizations. I came across a video as part of an Organization Development course I am taking — showing the changes in Yellowstone Park when wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995. Wolves returning to the park set the conditions for the park’s wildlife, forests and even the rivers to regenerate.

So what do wolves have to do with business leadership?

I’d love to share this 4-minute video with you, as it resonates so closely with the work I’ve done to help a number of organizations recently get back on track. It’s a great example of how leadership sets up the conditions for a company to thrive. It also relates to planning business succession, if you want your family to grow into your business.

Here’s a quote from this super-short documentary: “One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half-century has been the discovery of widespread trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom. The classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone Park in the United States when Wolves were re-introduced in 1995.” (Sustainable Human – You Tube)

Does this video give you any ideas?

Wolf Leadership and Business Succession

When I watch this video, my mind leaps to thinking about how our organizations are also ecosystems, with people and processes, economics, emotions and talents — and a story of how small changes can make a significant shift in our business.

The changes in the park’s environment remind me of the changes that took place in an organization I have been working with.  In this case, the leader, who for sure can be described as a “Wolf,” stepped away from his post as leader a few years ago. He was distracted by the good life, a loss of physical energy and the notion that maybe his kids could run the company.

The problem was that his kids are not wolves, they are lambs. (Well actually, one is a lamb, the other a snake and the third a peacock.) None of them really wants to be there and without the Wolf, things deteriorated pretty quickly.

With no leadership, shared vision, or common values, the rest of the menagerie all came out to play. Including a nephew whom I’ll describe as more of a jackrabbit — who in the past had been afraid of the wolf and had kept mainly on task. But with the Wolf away, the jackrabbit nephew was happy playing house with the female rabbits on the team.

Over a short period of time, without the Wolf, changes gradually crept into the organization. Eventually, the river ran dry (aka his bank account), and the food supply disappeared (aka customers). Over 60 species (employees) left to work somewhere else or start their own ventures.

How We Got the Business Leadership Back On Track

The strategy to get this company back on track started with building “Wolf” values and strengths into the organization.

Before hiring me as a business coach, the Wolf recognized he had a problem. His first attempt to fix his organization was to bring in a very expensive and hostile “Bull Shark”. I witnessed first hand as the remaining team ran for the hills, one-by-one hunkering down in their respective cubicles. This approach was destructive.

It would have been fast and easy to ask the Wolf to  fire all the rabbits and the peacock but I’ve learned that if you simply change out the people without changing the rules and identifying the purpose and the promise then the next hires will behave the same way.

To have lasting change, we needed to “get everybody on the same page before asking them to problem-solve or decide.” In getting everyone working together, “they will make better choices and be more likely to accept responsibility for action.” (Quote from Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff’s book, “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!”)

As a business coach, it has been challenging to quickly get things back on track with this team. Try getting that group described above “all in the same room!”

It was a full year before everyone was on the same page and to be honest, there are still a few who will eventually go away.

I am delighted to report that dysfunctional companies can become healthy again as did this one and many others our team has worked with.

Ready to work ON your business, not just IN it? We talk about real leadership change in our Business School for Busy Entrepreneurs.  You are welcome to check it out http://bit.ly/2f9Yo3T 

Until next time, what did you think of the video?

☮️ Beverlee Rasmussen, Systems Business Coach


Further Reading:

Meadows, D.H.; Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Chelsea Green Publishing; White River Junction, VT; 2008.

Weisbord, M. R., & Janoff, S. (2007). Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! : Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter.
San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


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