In the year of the millennium, I moved to Atlanta to start a challenging position at the largest consulting firm in the world, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). The global accounting firm hired me to lead one of their subsidiaries, where I would manage more than two hundred people throughout North America and Europe.
S0on a striking motif stood out: Giraffa camelopardalis.
The giraffe’s image was everywhere, depicted in plates and paintings, masks and sculptures. I spotted them as souvenirs in art stores and flea markets. There were giraffe themes for blankets, spoons, and statues—even T-shirts. When I asked friends why they collected giraffes, the response was always that they were cute or a symbol of Africa.
Needing more specifics, I researched the exotic animal, learning that giraffes had been paraded through Rome in 46 BC, were eradicated from Egypt in 2600 BC, and once roamed through many parts of Europe and Asia, where fossil remains have been discovered. From classical antiquity the giraffe’s image was depicted on vases, rock carvings, ancient tombs, and even the handles of ivory combs.
Physically the giraffe’s frame is structured for the broadest vision. The unique herbivore epitomizes environmental scanning, relying on its height and vision to manage and see beyond its immediate surroundings. Giraffes serve as lookout posts for the herd and other mammals that graze in the wild. They roam in open areas, avoiding the jungle, where they can’t see their main predator, the lion.
The tallest of all land-living species, giraffes range in height from fifteen to nineteen feet. As they graze, they stand tall, moving forward, walking with dignity, keenly aware of their surroundings. They rarely sleep; a typical rest period lasts about five minutes. Their Superman-like senses, coupled with their dominant height, serve as a natural surveillance system, a comprehensive set of sensory tools to protect the herd.
“Little gets by giraffes,” writes Jane Steven in International Wildlife. “Their huge eyes, the size of golf balls…offer a 360-degree color view of the world. From their vantage point at the second-story-window level, they can spot a cheetah two miles away.”
The sensitive hearing of giraffes enables them to detect the noises of predators approaching. Many research scientists believe giraffes’ petal-shaped ears help them communicate at decibels that humans, and their key predator, the lion, can’t hear, offering giraffes an additional defense mechanism to warn herds and other herbivores that graze nearby. When giraffes sense that danger is approaching, they turn their necks in a manner that serves as a warning sign. The signal enables the herd to react and guards against looming threats, even dangerous weather conditions.
Jennifer Margulis writes in Smithsonian that these “statuesque animals” are also social and affectionate. When they aren’t nibbling on moisture-rich foods such as acacia leaves, “they’re weaving their necks in and out and rubbing up against each other—just constantly physical and touching each other. It’s almost like they’re doing some kind of intricate ballet.”
While giraffes are not predators, they do defend and fight when necessary. Their weight ranges from 2,600 pounds to almost four thousand pounds, so if they kick a lion with a hoof, the thrust and impact can be lethal. Often giraffes elect to run, reaching speeds of more than thirty-five miles per hour in seconds, but they cannot sustain such speed for long periods, which is why they live in open country, where they use their height, vision, and other keen senses to reduce conflict and protect the herd.
Not only are other herbivores attracted to graze near the giraffe, but humans also find themselves drawn to this unique animal. Out of Africa author Isak Dinesen describes herds of giraffes as “giant speckled flowers, floating over the plains.”
In the “Kisii community of southwestern Kenya,” cites National Geographic, “giraffe sightings inspire great excitement…[and giraffes] are encouraged to remain within the village lands because the Kisii believe that their great height allows them to see approaching good and bad omens.”
While I was living in Atlanta, giraffe-inspired artwork, photographs, and ongoing research led me to think differently about leadership—especially at the start of the twenty-first century, a complicated setting due to the dramatic increase in technology that continues to trigger uneasy change in all of our professions.
Giraffes of Technology: The Making of the Twenty-First-Century Leader is rooted in six herbivore-inspired leadership traits that CEOs and managers must embrace over the next decade. Today’s technology triggers a business environment that requires adapting to untidy change. The six chapters in this book are rooted in unique themes of the metaphor of the giraffe.
- Acting as a lookout post: the ability to see farther down the plains than most with a keen focus on long-term (rather than short-term) problems as well as opportunities.
- Communicating with others as gentle giants: a leadership style that engages rather than dispirits the herd.
- Dealing with a violent birth: the dramatic fall after which the infant giraffe struggles to rise, as a new business does.
- Moving forward to feed (engaging in ongoing learning): the art of creating much more freedom in work settings to generate creative ideas that help employees adapt to ongoing, messy change.
- Understanding that the lions of change endlessly attack to maintain static work environments instead of embracing authentic change.
- Blending into new herds, a twenty-first-century environment in which diverse groups of people instinctively work together to deal with complex problems, thereby reducing last century’s emotional work environments, which inspired conflict.