Since I was a little girl, giraffes have been a favorite animal of mine. I was drawn to their sleek, tall stature and spotted coat, feeling a slight familiarity with my childhood face full of freckles. The tallest mammal in the world captivated my attention, this creature was imposing and powerful. Yet, even more enthralling to me, this same being was a gentle giant. She never appeared overbearing, but rather shy, subtle, demure. I would watch TV shows that featured the giraffe’s graceful gallop and in the next moment, an awkward and clumsy coordination of feet and neck reaching down to enjoy a drink from a watering hole. How could one animal combine all these endearing features?
And so it is in leadership. Many conflicting traits are needed for strong leaders.The most natural leaders are agile enough to display these opposing characteristics, often moments apart, hitting the timing impeccably. I recently witnessed a situation where a manager roared like a lion as they responded to a question from a colleague, then within moments, voiced a much-needed and appreciated softer, compassionate approach to the dialogue. This manager was flexible enough to understand what was needed at each exact moment, without losing control or backing down from her perspective. To me, she stood head and shoulders above the rest, able to maneuver through some tough terrain, with grace and grit.
Last week my husband and I visited the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, an 1,800 acre conservation park located in the San Pasqual Valley near Escondido, California. Wild animals roam freely and humans have the opportunity to get up close and personal. We took the Caravan Safari tour that offered feeding opportunities for giraffes and rhinos. The experience was thrilling, to have this amazing creature, an animal that has long captivated my attention, take a treat of sweet leaves from my hand. (The rhinos were extraordinary and surprising, too, but that’s a story for another day.) We might have been considered intruders, of sorts, as our truck entered their space. Yet we had snacks, and food is often a welcome item for most species. They were accustomed to the routines, providing the exact entertainment that had been promised by the tour guides. I watched the giraffes walk with purpose to our offerings, yet be gentle in their approach. Confident yet polite. Clear in what they wanted yet effortlessly sharing the stage. A leader that stood tall but wasn’t at all high-and-mighty.
Giraffes have been role models for me all my life. And of course, I am constantly learning from Grace, my daily canine guide to being a better person. But I don’t have the monopoly on these lessons and I’m curious: what animal has influenced you? How has he impacted your leadership style? What ways do you seek out more of these experiences and apply them for your own development?