Leadership tips from dolphin playbooks

A team of inquisitive dolphins being playful
Posted on: Saturday 16, September 2017
Category: Thought Leadership

This article explores the benefits to leaders of adopting a growth mindset to ride the waves of high performance and future success. 

But, people that adopt fox, baboon or sheep type behaviours ultimately inhibit high performance in teams. 

Foxes, dolphins, baboons and sheep

(Source 'Developing High Performance Teams' by Andrew Jenkins - reproduced with kind permission from Dr Robina Chatham).

In the simple model above, all four animals categorise the various roles people typically play in teams. Foxes and dolphins (top two boxes) are politically aware; baboons and sheep (bottom boxes) are not.

Studying the summary in each of the above boxes, what animals do you recognise make up your own team?

Fox-like attributes (top left box) simply put, are those people who play games in the workplace. They are politically aware and clever. Fox-like people can often quickly rise to and occupy senior positions in organisations. Indeed, in the past (when businesses were more hierarchical), fox-like behaviours were considered stereotypical and even sought after leadership attributes.

Baboon- and sheep-like behaviours (bottom boxes) of the politically unaware rarely make it to the senior levels. But such behaviours can often be witnessed within teams and organisations.

According to Dudley Lynch and Paul Kords in their book, ‘Strategy of the dolphin’, with a brain that is large, or larger than our brains, the dolphin is perhaps the foremost example of animal intelligence. Dolphins are inventive, playful, sensitive and responsive. They are skilled communicators. They adapt their behaviours quickly, precisely and ingeniously to make sure they get what they want. Dolphins thrive in all seas and oceans of the world, alone or in schools. Dolphins welcome challenge that requires them to do something new and different.

(Click here for a free practical exercise version of the above to use with your team).

Adopting dolphin playbooks

I believe that today’s approach to 'smart', high-performance teamwork relies on collaborative styles – that is, learning dolphin-like attributes (top right box). But, that also means deliberately developing ourselves beyond baboon-, sheep- and fox-like behaviours. Therefore, we need to grow up and push ourselves beyond the facets of a fixed mindset (default fear-based reactive and instinctive reactions). That is because such behaviours and habits have no place in high-performing teams.

Moreover, dolphin-like attitudes represent values associated with a growth mindset instead. I believe to create a high performance team requires each team member and the team as a whole to grow collectively. And the more senior the team, the more important this becomes.

But, generally speaking, most teams (at all levels) don’t collaborate naturally. As I've already mentioned this is because Dolphin-like attitudes require us all to shift our thinking to develop a growth mindset. But, the good news is that we can all learn through practise.

Most importantly, developing high-performance means your leaders and teams need to commit to purposefully wiping out fox-like behaviours. Such behaviours become divisive in the long term and ultimately lead to low-performing teams. We'll return to this theme again shortly.

Dolphin playbook styles and the future

Taking a big-picture view of the future for a moment, I believe that dolphin-like styles will significantly influence and represent the next successful phases in human consciousness - driving the way we think and behave. Dolphin-like leaders will certainly change our organisational (and hopefully even our political and social) cultures for the better too.

The graphic below shows a snapshot of advancing growth mindset worldviews (or evolving styles of consciousness). They come from research by Frederic Laloux and Ken Wilber (also referred to by others simply as spiral dynamics).

The attributes in the green circle have been emerging more and more in our organisational cultures over the last two or three decades now. Those in the yellow circle are only just emerging into our consciousness and will continue to do so. The turquoise circle represents possible predicted future evolutions in the next twenty or so years.

I believe that dolphin-like or more accurately growth mindset attitudes will directly influence all these advanced worldviews. What’s more, in the future, the intrinsic drivers for our success will include:

  • making a difference
  • building a better world for everyone
  • and serving humanity.

Today, we are already observing that people like Tim Cook at Apple and Elon Musk at Tesla and SpaceX, for example, evangelising these kinds of approaches. Furthermore, other early adopters such as companies like Ben and Jerry’s, Innocent, Virgin, even Google and many others, have incorporated values such as honesty, integrity, cooperation, collaboration principles and so on into their modus operandi. However, over time, this will begin to galvanise the efforts of leaders, managers and employees in many other businesses too. 

The above are all examples of encouraging dolphin-like growth mindsets, helping people to work towards an “inner calling” and developing people’s ability to cope with ambiguity. That, in turn, these will reflect in organisational culture as it catches up with its leaders’ approach.

Despite recent and perhaps even the sometimes-jarring political shifts we have all witnessed (that seem to be taking us backwards rather than forwards), I remain hopeful. Taking a more dolphin-like approach could provide a more sustainable and ecological hope for all of us on this amazing planet of ours and the whole of humanity too. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out, but I remain optimistic!

Practical dolphin playbook leadership tips

Returning to the everyday hustle-and-bustle of our working lives, below are some typical dolphin-like collaboration approaches that you can learn and action to begin your own journey to becoming a high-performance team:

Discussions – learn to approach topics, problems or issues using dialogue and open discussion. As a team, the aim is to be able to discuss issues without fear of blame, accusation or personal attack. Instead, you collectively practise to seek creative decisions that involve the insights, wants and (emotional) needs of the whole team and the wider concerns of others, such as employees and customers.

Behaviours – develop the skills to listen to each other actively. Rather than judging others or competing for opinions, instead seek curiosity, acknowledge viewpoints and ask for reactions and views using clear language. For example, ‘What do you think’? Or, ‘let’s have other points of view’. Build on information and as above, feedback from a variety of sources outside of the team. 

Attitude – learn the values of transparent, open-minded and respectful dialogue. Encourage others to share their insights. Realise that every viewpoint is a valuable resource to help you all to reach right decisions. Become adept at summarising all views and monitor the group understanding during the progress of discussions. 

Team relationships – help each other to seek practical solutions by drawing on each other’s strengths. In so doing, you will also increase team morale and cohesiveness. Believe in and have the intention to act as if you’re a great team. And that together you get to the bottom of issues problems and thereby make good decisions. 

Conflict – spend the time necessary to work through problems and figure them out. Encourage a spirit of confidence, motivation and encouragement to find solutions through robust honest and open conversations. If you as a team have built up trust with each other, then team members are unafraid to challenge each other. 

Language - as leaders part of the journey to high performance is to use language that is open, non-judgemental that gets the best from others and builds trust and acceptance. Learning to use growth based language helps teams to reach their outcomes effectively.


[1,106 words]

If you'd like to know more, then check out my latest book - 'Developing HIgh Performance Teams' - see link below.

Also, click the link below to watch my video called 'What if...' that demonstrates high performance leadership language that presupposes success:

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Other useful leadership blogs

Leadership - Who is Pulling Your Strings -Leadership development blog from Andrew Jenkins Leadership Development Consultant and Coach

High Performance Teams Fact or Fantasy - Blog Post

Look in the Mirror - That's Who is Standing in Your Way a blog from PDX Consultng leadership and team development experts

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Note on Graphics:

Foxes, dolphins, baboons and sheep graphic sourced from my new book. Emerging styles of consciousness - my origination, based on spiral dynamics. Heading dolphin photo is free commons use source, available for legal download. Photo of two dolphins together is kind permission from Candy Kaiser.


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