Leadership wisdom can come from unusual, even, exotic places. For Julie Henry, that means the zoo. And the aquarium. Safaris, seabeds and sunny skies, too.
Julie Henry’s insights into leadership development are wild.
Not the crazy kind of wild. But the wild wild, from the typical, such as sharks and bald eagles, to the more exotic, like naked mole rats and sea cucumbers. Lessons from observing those critters and more have formed the backbone of Henry’s diverse leadership development and consulting career. (Animals filled up her previous career, too, when she held leadership posts at multiple zoos and aquariums.)
Henry, who runs Sarasota-based Finish Line Leadership, has presented her leadership teachings before more than one million people across 32 states and six countries. That goes from on-site and online settings, and “from auditoriums and ballrooms to boats, beaches, forests, theaters, boardrooms and even underwater while feeding sharks and moray eels,” according to her website. More recently, Henry has put her lessons in a book, Wisdom from the Wild: The Nine Unbreakable Laws of Leadership from the Animal Kingdom.
The book was published late last year, after the pandemic delayed the debut by a few months. “In a lot of ways I’ve been working on this book for over 25 years,” Henry told me in an interview last fall, before the original publication date. The loose-forming idea to link nature and its ecosystems to leadership came to her in college, in the late 1990s, and has grown steadily over the years along with her career. “Now I have all the experience — I call it processed-driven scars.”
“I wanted (the book) to be a simple, accessible way to be a better leader,” she adds. “We get so caught up in leadership development we forget that we have a gut and we should listen it. We over complicate things.”
In our interview and in the book, Henry breaks leadership into three parts: change, teamwork and resilience. She writes that “leadership is an ever-fluid balance between…input-gathering and decision-making.” And the pandemic, of course, heightens the pressure. “Leaders have never been so important,” Henry says. “The ability to make decisions in a time of unprecedented unpredictability is a treasured and sought after trait.”
Henry’s unbreakable laws include:
• Change is constant, but it doesn’t have to be chaos: This one stems from the roots of any ecosystem, or organization, Henry says. Those roots must begin with commitment and follow-through, so change is a positive force — not something that drags people down. Henry adds that one effective way to lead change is to be like the three species of mangroves that can regenerate: assess, build and commit/communicate. “External forces may threaten your shoreline,” she writes, “but nothing can shake a solid foundation rooted in a transparent, systemic process for planning and implementing change.”
‘Leaders have never been so important. The ability to make decisions in a time of unprecedented unpredictability is a treasured and sought after trait.’ Julie Henry
• If you’re distracted by fear, you’ll miss the opportunity: This chapter kicks off with a picture of a creepy crawler and a fear to many: a spider. But not all spiders are bad. Fear, says Henry, can be “nature’s built-in yellow light, reminding you to slow down and pay attention to the opportunities for change that sticks.”
• When you can’t see the finish line, let purpose by your guide: A sea turtle plays a starring role in this chapter, when Henry notes the unique way a female sea turtle lays her eggs. Using earth’s magnetic fields and other ingrained cues, she finds her way back to the region where she was hatched, Henry writes. Then she lays her eggs — repeating what her ancestors did. “She does all this,” Henry writes, “without ‘seeing’ where she’s going, without ‘knowing’ where the finish line is.” The moral? “When change feels the hardest, trust your training and instinct as a leader.”
• There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to teamwork: To build high-performing teams, Henry suggests starting with a personal leadership assessment. Find out your strengths and weaknesses as a team leader. “You can’t know where to focus, how to be truly effective, or even who to put on your team if you don’t stop first and evaluate your team leadership skills,” she writes. A naked mole rat makes an appearance in this chapter, as a symbol, Henry says, to remember “teams are as unique and distinctive as the leaders and people who form” them.
• Surround yourself with people who are not like you: This chapter is subtitled “termite, meet giraffe — giraffe, meet termite.” Henry writes of an African savanna, of how every animal there plays a different and necessary role. This goes for elephants, meerkats, zebras, African wild dogs and even vultures. “Successful leaders know they need a termite in order to thrive as a giraffe, that a seemingly inverse or paradoxical colleague may be just the person who can help you achieve the impact your are seeking to make.”
• A team without a solid foundation is really just a group: Much like a coral reef that supports an entire ecosystem, great leaders, says Henry, recognize their teams and team members are the “living breathing support network that allows the organization to thrive.” To perform well, those teams require a “shared understanding of their mission, purpose, goals and operational norms.”
• Resilience is instinct in action: Good leaders, Henry says, “know when to forge ahead, when to take a break and what they uniquely need in order to regroup before pushing forward.” The (somewhat surprising) creature that embodies that spirit in the book? The pelican. Henry explains: The pelican, rather than fret about how, will often just do — from finding food to securing shelter. “You come built with instinct — take action on it,” she writes. “You come built with limits — incorporate them. You come built with resilience.”
• We are wired not to just survive, but thrive: It’s nearly the end of the book when the sea cucumber makes its gutsy debut. For real. Turns out, in a scientific term known as evisceration, a sea cucumber will eject its guts as its first wave of defense when being attacked by a predator. It can then suck its guts back in when the threat dissipates. And if the predator eats the guts? A sea cucumber will grow its own guts back, Henry writes. “Yep — it can regrow its own guts. Talk about bouncing back and recovering.”
• Even cheetahs slow down: This is the title of a leadership presentation Henry has used before, including one for the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance I attended in 2020. And of all the unbreakable laws, this one, she says, “is the guiding force because I believe it is the very essence of being a leader. The cheetah’s need to preserve its energy for the challenges ahead is the very definition of an unbreakable law of nature — a fact you cannot argue with and cannot manipulate.”
Slowing down, in one sense, means knowing when to say no and being able to “unapologetically set up boundaries,” Henry says. Earlier in her career that was a struggle, she says, which led her to “decades of working harder — not smarter — to prove” any doubters wrong. Slowing down, she adds, also means time to “rest in the shade so you can come back even faster than before.”
“Your team, your company, your community and your purpose,” Henry adds, “need you to show up as a cheetah, ready to run at top speed — and willing to accept that slowing down is both inevitable and preferable.”