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What the African Bush Can Teach About Business

From smart cooperation models to conflict resolution strategies: what you can adapt from the African wilderness for your business and everyday work life

Ten years ago, Stephanie Kulak went to South Africa. She had worked in marketing and PR for 16 years and only wanted to stay for a few months. But, as is the case with plans, the short break turned into ten years. She trained as a safari guide, learned to read tracks and use a rifle, decipher the behavior of animals, determine stones, plants, and bird sounds. Later Stephanie trained guides herself and led a team. She has been back in Germany for almost a year and works as a coach. In her talks and coaching sessions she explains, for example, what you can learn for business from the African bush. Let’s go on a little safari!

Change management: The courage to create something new

It all started when elephants had knocked over my favorite tree one day. For three years I had driven past that tree every day, once I had even discovered a leopard in it. And then this proud giant lay on the ground. I was sad, even angry at the elephants. And another feeling interfered with it; I suddenly became aware, I wanted to hold on to it. I wanted things to stay the way they were. Over the following months I observed that the tree was changing – mice and birds had started nesting in the branches now lying on the ground, and kudus were coming to eat them. It was a symbol of change. Everyone is afraid of losing something familiar, but if you change your perspective – in the business world you would call it “mindshift” – you see the opportunities. You can see that something totally new is emerging and that it just takes some time to get established. 

Real leadership: Connected to the team

Anyone can be a leader, there are countless leadership roles. A safari guide is also a leader, of course. In the African bush, life and death are at stake. What unites everyone is taking responsibility and not losing sight of the team. How important this is became clear to me during a tour with an older British couple. It was their first time on safari and I really wanted to offer them something special. As a guide, you automatically assume that everyone wants to see lions. It was night time, I was driving with red lights and discovered a pride. I was so happy and proud! I turned to the couple and was shocked;  the woman was as white as a sheet clinging to her husband. I had been so focused on finding lions that I had completely forgotten to find out what my guests actually wanted. 

Collaboration and networks: The Ubuntu principle 

In Africa, there is the “Ubuntu” principle. Translated it reads: I am, through you. Everyone depends on each other, no one is better than the other. Applied to the modern world of work, it is about networks and flat hierarchies; the organizational principle in times of digitalization. The bushwalk is a good example of modern leadership. The way is always led by a leader who has experience in the bush and gives orientation accordingly. But this trivial “command and control” no longer prevails, it only works if you stay in touch with the group. If the people behind me don’t open their ears and pay attention to the signals, or even discover the lion, you can’t function as a team. 

Stephanie Kulak: From smart cooperation models to conflict resolution strategies: what you can adapt from the African wilderness for your business and everyday work life
Stephanie Kulak
Photo: Craig Dutton

Reach your goal faster: Open your mind

One of the biggest innovation killers is tunnel vision – when you’re so focused on a problem that you lose sight of the big picture. Or wasting far too much time and energy that could be used more profitably. By observing the competition, for example. Big picture instead of small. It’s about trusting intuition. It’s like looking for lions. Instead of looking down and following tracks, it would be more effective to look up and observe the sky. Are vultures circling? Then the lion has made a kill. So instead of walking laboriously from track to track, you could shorten things and go directly to the water hole. Lions, as we know, go directly to the water and drink after they have caught prey.

Cooperation and togetherness: The path to success

Yeah, maybe you can make a difference on your own. But together you have impact. Like wild dogs, for example, which organize themselves completely free of hierarchy. They are successful because they hunt as a team. The first wild dog runs as much as he can, and if it gets tired, the second takes over, and then the third, and so on. They are completely designed for cooperation and not for egos. They are the most successful predators in the steppe, they have a 90 percent chance of success in hunting – lions only 30 to 40 percent.

Outgrowing yourself: The advantages of true symbiosis

We need more win-win concepts, more collaboration. Sometimes you forget that in the working world. I think we need to think about it again. A remarkable example from nature is the symbiosis between elephants and marula trees. The fruit has to pass through the digestive tract of the elephant for the kernel to be broken up by the gastric juice and passed on as manure for the chance to germinate and grow. They are dependent on one another – but in the best sense of the word. 

Stephanie Kulak: From smart cooperation models to conflict resolution strategies: what you can adapt from the African wilderness for your business and everyday work life
Photo: Craig Dutton

Success in the niche: Every ecosystem functions differently

There are many different concepts and each has its justification. The leopard hunts differently than the lion, and the lion hunts differently than the wild dog. The elephants and hyenas organize themselves as matriarchy, other species as patriarchy. Without these different strategies, the economy would no longer function. Everything has an ecological niche and each needs the other. Startups need corporations, corporations need service providers and startups. Even if it may sound trivial, you have to realize that it is an ecosystem where everyone has their rights.

Whatever you do, don’t run

When an elephant tries to attack, the natural impulse is to run away. Terrible choice. The other two are counterattack or freeze. But there is a fourth and much better variant, because it’s safer: stay still. It gives both the chance to meet eye-to-eye, and at the same time to communicate with each other, “I don’t want to do anything to you, I respect your space.” It is also a good solution on the job not to extend your claws and let the situation escalate – or to run away. The superior thing is to stay calm and face the situation. Which brings us to the next point…

Stephanie Kulak: From smart cooperation models to conflict resolution strategies: what you can adapt from the African wilderness for your business and everyday work life
Stephanie Kulak
Photo: Sandra Müller

Benefit of the doubt: He who hesitates, wins

I once experienced a situation where a lion tried to attack us. He was only 15 meters away. How to react? We aimed the rifle and hit the metal a little, and the lion eventually turned away. What you can learn from it: don’t pull the trigger immediately. First you have to endure the moment and consider whether you can avert the situation without it ending in a conflict. Impulse control is one of the most important skills a leader has to bring with.

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