What We Can Learn in the Wild: A Leaderʻs Survival Guide?

From Lonely Planetʻs entertaining blog

What to do when you encounter dangerous animals

Kate Armstrong 16 May, 2012 (with occasional comments by Carol Burbank, leadership wrangler…)

on resting on dirt road, Kalahari Gemsbok National Park Kalahari Lion resting on dirt road. Karl Lehmann, Lonely Planet Photographer


There’s no better story than an encounter with a charging bull elephant. That said, you want to make sure you live to tell the tale. Whether you are spotting the Big Five on a wildlife drive in Africa, staking out polar bears in Canada, or photographing wild monkeys in Asia, the first rule to remember is that a wildlife area isn’t like Disneyland – The Lion King’s Simba the lion and Ed the hyena don’t exist beyond their animated cartoon versions. Unfortunately, each year travellers are mauled and killed by wild animals around the world.

Professional South African wildlife guide Kian Barker, who is also a zoologist and biologist, warns: ‘When venturing into an animal world, you are on their territory. Not the other way around. Animals may be habituated to people in that they don’t flee – many visitors wrongly assume an animal is domesticated or tame.’

NOTE: This is great advice for those of us venturing forth as leaders into an often unpredictable world! The folks we meet, particularly those of the predator or protective classes, need us to stand firm, and make no assumptions until we know exactly who they are and where they stand! The biggest mistake a leader can make is to flee — or confront — another leader before weʻve identified their true nature.

When encountering dangerous animals in the wild, some basic – but often overlooked – rules apply.

Wildlife tours

  • In the first instance, always opt for a guided tour over a self-drive expedition, with a professional, experienced guide. Having said that, if you’re not comfortable with anything they do, say so. According to Barker, ‘A guide can also push the boundaries.’
  • Heed written and verbal warnings.
  • Never (ever) feed animals.
  • Don’t anthropomorphise an animal, nor think you can predict their behaviour. Anything from a cold to an ulcer can aggravate an animal and affect its conduct.
Say it ainʻt so — our leaders might push the boundaries and put us in danger! We have to learn to trust ourselves, pay attention to the environment, and be aware of our stories — anthropomorphising an animal is far safer than projecting a handsome prince onto a barracuda boss! Oh yes, until we know theyʻre tame — donʻt (ever) feed the animals, whether itʻs gossip or key information! Sustainable leaders learn the terrain and its wildlife before taking action.


  • Never get out of the car, not even for the irresistible, superlative wildlife snap. If you do alight at certain view points where this is permitted, be alert to movement.
  • Don’t agitate animals to make them do something. Be patient. The animals move and interact normally when you give them space.
  • Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’re due back.
  • Be vigilant and alert to the mood of the animal – whether it’s looking aggravated or relaxed. A grumpy buffalo is a killer buffalo.
  • Always approach animals with caution and be aware of where you drive and stop. ‘An elephant follows a specific path. If you’re in the way it will simply toss the car aside,’ says Barker. ‘Or crush it.’
How many of us have made the mistake of parking our assets in front of an elephant-personʻs path, waving in cheerful greeting, and getting crushed for our friendly efforts? Itʻs something I see all the time in business — the earnest effort to help or to be a team player that turns us into roadkill for some monofocused manager!
And if only we could remember his rule when weʻre dealing with followers: “Don’t agitate animals to make them do something. Be patient. The animals move and interact normally when you give them space.” And then you can tell how to work with them, how to get them from where they are to where they need to be!

Wildlife walks

  • Know something about the animals you might encounter. Don’t display rash or sudden behaviour and always walk in open – never forested – areas.
  • Try to walk in the direction of the wind. This way, animals know you are coming – they can hear and smell you.
  • Store all food and take garbage – big brown bears will do anything to get into a food safe, as will hyenas.
  • Know how to react before you are attacked. Learn when you would curl into a ball and play dead (polar bear); run away (elephant); stand your ground (lion – nothing turns a lion on more than fleeing prey); or run perpendicular to the animal and climb a tree (black rhino – extremely unpredictable and bad tempered but tend to charge in a straight line).
“Know how to react before youʻre attacked.” If only people were as clear in their habits as black rhinos and lions. But maybe we are, if youʻre paying attention. Planning strategy with the habits (animal or otherwise) of our colleagues and superiors in mind certainly makes survival — and success — more likely!


  • Watch for baby animals – cute babies mean aggressive parents.
  • Think small as well as big. Don’t be distracted by the larger wildlife at the expense of ‘little nuisances but big bothers’ – ticks, mosquitoes, spiders, and so on. Use insect repellent, take anti-malarial precautions where necessary and tuck your pants into socks.
I love this one: “Think small as well as big.” Oh, yes, theyʻll stop us in our tracks, those little obstacles that rise into our path, either by circumstance, sabotage, or follower desperation. The key seems to be remembering the rule, “Donʻt be distracted by the larger wildlife at the expense of ʻlittle nuisances but big bothers.” I wonder what the equivalent of tucking your pants into your socks might be for a leader? Acknowledging the small fish in the big pond of a corporation? It all comes down to paying attention.

As for responding to an emergency? Always carry a first aid kit for the smaller problems…but obviously, for injuries, leave the area immediately and seek medical advice.

And being prepared to deal with the small stuff — with enough level-headed leaderly common sense to get help for the bigger problems you canʻt solve on your own!
Now, go bravely forth into the wilderness of our transforming world – and donʻt forget your first aid kit!


  1. I love this one! Makes me think back to my days in TZ.

    I especially like the nerdy advice to tuck your socks in your pants. Africans don’t do this. Only silly white tourists.

    Hope you are doing well!


    1. Yeah, I can see it would be nerdy tourists who would be afraid of ticks. Even though I live in tick heaven, I just spray — no more of that tucking!

      I’m doing great, thanks! Hope you’re staying away from the giant flying skeeters in Georgia…


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