Leadership Skills and Tips from a Gorilla, a Zoo, a Concerned Parent and a 3-Year-Old Boy

By BlessingWhite , a Division of GP Strategies

By now, most have heard of the tragedy that took place at Ohio’s Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden last month, where a young child found his way into a gorilla enclosure. Fearing for the young child’s life, the zoo employees made a decision to shoot and kill the gorilla. Since then we’ve been inundated with so-called “experts” sharing their opinions, the media frenzy offering up additional speculation and viewpoints that seem to range as far as gorillas themselves can roam. As a leadership “expert” (for the purposes of this article only, I will think of myself as the “Jane Goodall of Leadership”), I find this story fascinating, albeit devastatingly sad.


I’m intrigued by this, however, because amidst all the finger-pointing and second-guessing; between conversations around potential legal ramifications; and through all the name-calling, protesting, public ridicule and outrage, the one thing that seems to be lacking is compassion for the humans involved. Does anyone really think the parent encouraged her child to climb in with the gorilla? Does anyone really think the zookeepers wanted to kill Harambe? Does anyone really know what the animal was thinking? And do we really think the small boy planned to come face to face with a 400lb primate? This was an unfortunate situation for so many reasons, and yet it somehow feels implausible that we humans (note: not primates) could simply say, “This is so sad; I’m sorry it turned out this way; I’m sure everyone did the best they could…”


Somehow ‘compassion’ becomes the square peg in a round hole of many situations. It doesn’t quite fit, and when it shows up, it appears as “competitive compassion” which is a term I just made up. It’s not a real thing. But the animal rights advocates seem to claim superior levels of compassion for Harambe; the parenting advocates seem to claim superior levels of compassion for the mother…you can see where this is going. “Competitive compassion” is not compassion. And, as evidenced by the profound conflict emerging from this situation, it’s not helpful either.


But interestingly enough, compassion is one of the most underrated leadership qualities today. It can propel motivation, performance, devotion and learning in profound ways. Compassionate leadership inspires people with purpose, hope, optimism and energy because, by nature of compassion, they resonate, empathize and connect more with others. Chade-Meng Tan, the famous “Jolly Good Fellow” who works at Google, posits that compassionate leaders are effective leaders, and defines compassion as having three components:


  1. cognitive: “I understand you”
  2. affective: “I feel for you”
  3. motivational: “I want to help you”


Essentially, he suggests that being a compassionate leader means that you go from “I” to “we.” How else can you truly unleash the potential of your people and the organization? If people are simply following your lead, then they are limited to your vision, your direction, and your mandates. But when leaders stop focusing on themselves, they are able to develop other leaders and foster an environment of learning and growth.


Similarly, in his book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t,” Jim Collins studies companies that have moved from goodness to greatness, and he identifies one key component: the leaders. What he learned about the leaders who take companies from good to great is that they are able to balance ambition with humility. He found these leaders to be highly ambitious, but the focus of their ambition was not themselves; they were ambitious for the greater good. They felt no need to inflate their own egos, or perhaps more accurately, they chose not to inflate their own egos at the expense of others.


So, let’s rethink the old-school mentality of putting business before benevolence. Let’s challenge the leaders who think they have to lead with their heads, not their hearts…those who think they need to be tough, strong, decisive, hard-nosed, ultra-rational and results driven. They’re wrong. Let’s try compassionate leadership on for size. Compassion allows you to form a relationship with your employees, so that they motivate themselves to do what is required of them. Compassionate leadership allows you to spur learning, encourage growth and increase the devotion to the company. Compassion is becoming the “secret sauce” at some of the most progressive companies, and within some of the greatest leaders.


So leaders, check your ego at the door; it’s not about you. It’s about you having compassion for others, so you can effectively coach them, develop them, and help them – and the organization – grow. If we can all take a break from this proverbial poo-flinging, have compassion for others, ambition that goes beyond ourselves, and a true selfless stance on leadership, then I think we can actually be inspired by Harambe. His name is a variation of the Kenyan rallying cry “harambee,” which means “pull together.” And that is the epitome of a good leader—inspiring their teams to pull together for the greater good of the organization.