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Learning from wolves


WolvesDawn Smith explores the concept that important lessons can be learned about leadership, teamwork, cooperation and communication from the ancestors of our current best friends: wild wolves.

The idea that humans can learn from wolves is not new, and according to anthropologists, the practice is as old as the hills. There's a body of research which suggests that humans learned vital survival skills from wolves, at an important stage in homo sapiens' development.

"Many early humans modelled themselves on wolf packs, learning cultural and practical skills from a highly successful species," says Dr William Lynn, Professor of human-animal studies at Tufts University, and the founder of Practical Ethics. He cites research by Australian anthropologist Dr Paul Tacon, who with Colin Pardoe suggested in 2002 that the relationship between our human ancestors and wolves was a key factor in the development of modern human behaviour such as social co-operation.

According to Tacon and Pardoe, humans learned to hunt in groups around the time that wolves began to live around humans - there is no evidence that earlier human ancestors did so. Other wolf/dog-like traits that may have been picked up by humans include same-sex, non-kin friendships, which are not evident in other primates, and which gave a great survival advantage - for example, by speeding up the exchange of ideas between groups.

Photo of Dr Twyman Towery. Photo credit: Chris Kelly"The attitude of the wolf is always based upon the question, 'What is best for the pack?'"

Dr Twyman Towery
Photo credit: Chris Kelly

In fact, several behaviours which distinguish us from other primates may be 'wolfie' behaviours, says dr Temple Grandin, professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. In her book 'Animals in Translation', she says "a lot of the things we do that the other primates don't are dog things". Tacon and his colleagues "think it was the dogs who showed us how", she adds.

Leadership and team dynamics

If wolves and early dogs taught humans a few handy tricks, what can be learned today from studying wolf behaviour?

On the Walking with Wolves programme run by UK training company Ingram de Havilland (IDH), delegates interact with real wolves to learn lessons about leadership and team dynamics. The two day course, which is aimed at women leaders and is accredited by the ILM (Institute of Leadership & Management), is co-facilitated by Phil Watson, chairman and founder of the Anglia Wolf Society. By observing the dynamics of the wolf pack, and by matching wolf behaviour with the behavioural characteristics of humans, the programme seeks to highlight important aspects of leadership, assertiveness and team building.

According to Phil, wolf leaders are confident, socially independent and good at turning a situation to their advantage. And they do so within a pack that is constantly changing. "The wolves buff and rebuff each other all the time: there is constant social testing,' says Phil. 'These are highly intelligent creatures, and they remember what they got away with… and what they didn't!'

The Anglian Wolf Society is also involved in the seminars run by leadership specialist Jessica Richards. Co-facilitated by Phil Watson, the wolf seminars allow delegates the experience of "translating live business and personnel issues into the paradigm of the wolf and its group social structure and then relating the learning back into the corporate environment," says Jessica. "The similarities between our world and the wolves' can be surprisingly close."

Re-learning old teamwork tricks

To some extent, learning from wolves is a case of re-learning old lessons - particularly about the essence of teamwork, says Dr Twyman Towery, author of 'The Wisdom of Wolves: Nature's Way to Organisational Success'.

Towery, who also runs training seminars based on his ideas, points to the following typical behaviour in a wolf pack, which human organisations could learn from.

Sharing the load

Every member of the pack does not aspire to be the boss, but each wolf takes a share in the leadership responsibilities where necessary. During a difficult journey in the snow, for example, the pack leader starts as the trailblazer, but then other pack members take turns to lead, allowing the former leader to rest.

Wolf pups are trained from an early age to assume their part in the leadership of the pack, says Towery, because their life depends on it. "It is the same with successful organisations and families," he adds. "Members must be prepared not only to carry their own load but also to assume greater leadership at any time. The viability of the organisation may well depend on it."

Pack attitude… with unique contributions

"The attitude of the wolf is always based upon the question, 'What is best for the pack?'," says Towery. Each pack member "understands his/her role and understands exactly what the pack expects of them".

Similarly, in the human world, "successful teams have the right perspective and right attitude", say the authors of 'The Wolf Pack: Team Dynamics for the 21st Century'. Drawing on the work of Towery and others, the authors - Pamela Johnson, Virginia Heimann and Karen O'Neill of California State University - examine how wolf-like qualities can be applied to a successful team.

A delicate balance between 'pack mentality' and allowing individual members to contribute is what's needed, they say: human teams work best when "no one, regardless of how large or small that person's part, is looking to take over someone else's job ".

Towery points out that respect for each team member's contribution is classic wolf behaviour. In a howling wolf pack, each wolf assumes a unique pitch. "This respect for the individual only emphasises the true unity of the group," he says. "Every wolf has his own voice. Every wolf respects the voice of every other wolf."

Team fun = team spirit

Team building and training events that allow members to have fun together and promote positive peer relationships can lead to higher achievement and greater productivity, and increased commitment to the team, say Johnson, Heimann and O'Neill. "Where there is little fun and low level of commitment, teams experience higher absenteeism, higher turnover, and a greater desire to quit not only the team but also the organisation," they add. In this respect, teams could learn from wolves, who really live the old adage "work hard, play hard" says Towery - not just as pups but throughout their lives.

Perseverance and purpose

Wolf packs have only a one in 10 success rate when hunting, asserts Towery. But when a hunt fails, they don't brood, they get on with the next hunt - and the lessons learnt from their mistakes "become part of the wolf's collective knowledge base." 21st Century teams "need to become more like the wolves" in this respect, say Johnson and colleagues, learning from their mistakes but not being downhearted about them.

"If humans could react to controversy or conflict in the same way wolves did, we may see a higher incidence of co-operation and a lower incidence of poor productivity due to hurt feelings or feelings of resentment."

Jess Edberg, International Wolf Center"

However, persistence is not much use without a team plan. A hunting wolf pack has a strategy and a goal, and all the members know what these are, says Towery. That's rarely the case in organisations, he claims, where the mission or goals of the organisation are often unknown even to the management team. "Without this knowledge there can be no coherent strategy," he says.

Loyalty and training

Wolf pack elders constantly teach and mentor the younger wolves, and all members of the pack take a role in training the young, says Towery, "for the pack realises that the young are their future".

This co-operative training has positive effects that have parallels in human teams. When the pack loses an older member, their role can be quickly filled by another wolf, because knowledge has been shared. It also contributes to pack loyalty. In human organisations, "giving people the opportunity and tools to improve themselves builds the type of loyalty that is an asset of inestimable worth," says Towery.


That old chestnut, effective communication, is vital to team success and something that many organisations claim to want to improve, but what can wolves teach us about exchanging information?

Towery explains that wolves use every means of communication at their disposal, from sound to miniscule eye movements, but that the key to their success in this area is that they watch and listen closely. "To wolves the art of communication is paying close attention to all types of communication. Their powers of observation are honed so finely that they record even the most subtle changes in each other's behaviour."

Another perspective is given by Jess Edberg, information services director at the International Wolf Center. "Wolves have a complex system of communication that is meant to prevent conflict within the pack as well as between packs," she explains. "When conflict occurs, they use this communication to mitigate the conflict as quickly and efficiently as possible. We do not know what kinds, if any, emotions wolves have but, if humans could react to controversy or conflict in the same way wolves did, we may see a higher incidence of co-operation and a lower incidence of poor productivity due to hurt feelings or feelings of resentment. if people could react to differences with co-workers in a practical manner rather than an emotional manner, we may see less conflict in the office setting."

Dawn Smith is a freelance writer of more than 15 years standing. She also runs a copywriting, translation and web marketing company called The Final Word

References and further information

  • Anglian Wolf Society

  • Ingram de Havilland's Walking with Wolves programme

  • Jessica Richard's Wolf Seminars

  • International Wolf Center

  • 'The Wisdom of Wolves: Nature's Way to Organisational Success', Twyman L. Towery PhD, 2000, Wessex House Publishing. Details from Towery Communications:

  • 'The Wolf Pack: Team Dynamics for the 21st Century', Pamela Johnson, Virginia Heimann and Karen O’Neill, Journal of Workplace Learning, Volume 12, No 4, 2000, pp 159-164, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, £13. URL:
  • 'Canis Lupus Cosmopolis: Wolves in a Cosmopolitan Worldview', William S. Lynn, PhD, Worldviews, 6(3), 300-327. Details on Dr Lynn's website

  • 'Animals in Translation', Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, 2004, Scribner. Details from Dr Grandin's website

  • 'Dogs Make Us Human', Paul S. C. Tacon and Colin Pardoe, 2002, Nature Australia, Autumn: 53-61.

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