A maverick band of rabbits, threatened by the spread of industrial construction near their warren (home), start out on a quest for a new warren and a better society.
This is the backstory for Richard Adams’s 1972 best-selling book, Watership Down. The story describes the rabbits’ sudden evacuation and long odyssey complete with extreme danger, delightful fun, and challenging hurdles.
One part of the story has the band of rabbits encountering a group of caged rabbits on a small farm. The wandering pack needs more does (females) for their new society and there are two does and two bucks inside the small cage in the back of the barn. They extend a heartfelt invitation to all (does and bucks) to join them on their wild journey.
“Do you ever come out?” asks the leader, Hazel, puzzled by the caged rabbits’ docile nature. “Yes, sometimes,” one of the nervous rabbits declares. “The little boy takes us out and puts us in a pen on the grass.”
Opening the cage door, Hazel works to convince the four to abandon their confined and boring dwelling and join his band in the wild. As he spins his story of adventure and liberation, the caged rabbits resist with concerns for their security. “Besides,” one laments, “the nice little boy always comes to feed us and keeps us away from the big dog.”
The caged rabbits seem at once both bewildered and fascinated. As they continue their “freedom versus security” discussion, Hazel comes to a powerful realization:
“Although they were glad to talk to him and welcomed his visit because it brought a little excitement and change into their monotonous life, it was not within their capacity to take a decision and act on it. They did not know how to make up their minds. To him and his companions, sensing and acting was second nature, but these rabbits had never had to act to save their lives or even to find a meal.”
What Is Leadership, Really?
The classic tenets of what it means to be a leader originated in an era of “cage” employees. Employees punched in, went to their workstations, did their tasks all day, and punched out. New employees hoped to avoid getting a bad boss and stayed worried about their pay raises and performance reviews. They learned to keep their heads down; mouths closed, and just get the job done. Good bosses were benevolent but controlling; bad bosses were judgmental and controlling. Bosses held control over their means for food; and, if employees were good team players they got to enjoy the equivalent of being in the pen on the grass.
Leaders were instructed to be tough but fair. Many focused on their own welfares and drilled inflexibly for greater productivity. Even the language of business was littered with combative idioms like “cut throat,” “hands tied,” “take the bull by the horns,” “get a foot in the door,” and “twist an arm.” Recruiters were headhunters; organizational charts were chains of command. Leaders avoided getting in “hot water” or “burning bridges” and tried to stay “ahead of the pack.” Some led with directives via email or endless meetings; some walked the floor as “snooper-visors” with an ever-present eye for error.
Welcome To The Wild
Today’s employees work virtually, remotely, or on a shift different than their bosses. They are more interested in the camaraderie of collaborative work than in the aloneness of solo tasks. They are propelled more by the intrinsic worth of doing a good job than by simply completing their assigned work. They are more likely to leave because of a poor relationship with their immediate supervisor. While the great majority of managers today believe employees exit for more money, research shows only 12% leave for compensation concerns.
We live in a brain-based economy, not a brawn-based one. In such a world, employees thrive with more autonomy, more affirmation, and a sense of ownership in the goals of the unit. They want professional growth not necessarily upward mobility. They want to make a real difference. While they constantly court burnout from an unrelenting work pace, they are more apt to blame global competition than the quirkiness of their leader. All these pressures have changed the requirements for great leadership.
The Way Of The Leader In The Wild
Hazel provides a prototype of a leader excelling in the wild. His band of renegades is deeply committed to their mission and the members enjoy working together to overcome obstacles. They operate more as a partnership—a confederation of equals with different skills and talents but a shared calling and a collective zeal to see it through. Below are four tenets from Watership Down for leading in the wild.
- Pursuit Of Purpose – It was not easy to enlist a few rabbits to trust Fiver’s nightmare vision of the impending destruction of their warren while ignoring the naysaying “Great Rabbit” and risk an unfamiliar journey. It required a compelling sense of purpose. At the end of the book, the band of rabbits learns that Fiver’s vision came true—bulldozers destroyed the warren the band had abandoned. Today’s workers value a cause, not just a course. They learn the capacity to make wise decisions when propelled by a noble mission. They require a sense of the why, not just the what or how.
- Lead With Stories – Each evening before the rabbits went to sleep a story was shared. Adams’s book devoted a full chapter to each story. Filled with promise and courage the stories instructed as well as inspired. They yielded hope and courage. Great leaders are storytellers. Stories are more than just tall tales or campfire yarns. They include discussions of the enterprise in the future tense. They are visions of what can be, not just what is. They are dreams, not just plans. In a complex, unpredictable and volatile competitive work world, stories of promise instill conviction and bolster confidence.
- Champion Diversity – Wise leaders know that success in the future will not come from incremental improvement but rather through disruptive innovation. Most surviving organizations have squeezed most of the waste and inefficiencies from their operations. Playing to win requires divergent perspectives, risk-taking confidence, and the bold embrace of change. That means a culture filled with a sense of adventure and a strong reception of different perspectives. Diversity is more than “does and bucks;” it is an attitude of continual learning and passionate curiosity–the engines of breakthroughs.
- Leadership As A Force – From abandoned warren to a new home, leadership among the rabbits influenced and inspired their collective success. While Hazel was the “appointed” chief, leadership was communal–coming from the rabbit best able to deal with the challenge or situation. Hazel believed in the goodness of everyone and nurtured each to be a fellow leader. He respected the astute instincts of Fiver, the runt of the warren. Leadership in the wild is an adaptable and helpful force, not a role. Since it is shared power, it is trusted power. It nurtures rather than controls; mentors instead of commands.
A wise coach once said:
“My responsibility is getting all my players playing for the name on the front of the jersey not the one on the back.”
Leadership today is about achieving an honorable collective purpose while building a better society. In the end, Hazel and his band of rabbits were successful, not for their victorious house hunting, but for their virtuous community building.