Brandt On Leadership -- This Is About Elephants -- Really

Dec. 21, 2004
Study shows higher rates of survival when collective wisdom is preserved.

This column is not about your older, more experienced staff members. This column is not about your inclination during a downturn to offer early retirement or outright layoffs to the elder statesmen in your company. And this column is most definitely not to be interpreted as a metaphor of any type, no matter how tempting. Instead, this column is about elephants -- animals that never forget, at least according to what we were told as children. Alas, as science progressed, we learned this fun bit of folklore, like most folklore, was utter nonsense. Except, we now find that it isn't. In a recent study published in Science magazine, researchers led by Karen McComb at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, and Sarah Durant of the Institute of Zoology in London found not only that elephants never forget, but that their social memory -- comprised of the collective memories of family elders -- is vital to the health and survival of the herds in which they live. Here's how it works: In any given year, a family of elephants will run into numerous other families that will include even more numerous adult females. Adult females are dangerous to other herds because they are (1) more prone to cause disturbances, and (2) more likely to harass calves from other families. Elephants must be able to discern quickly between herds whose matriarchs are friendly or antagonistic, both for safety's sake (the family will circle around its youngsters in defensive formation) and for the group's general well being. It's hard to graze contentedly, for example, while you're worried about being attacked or molested. What McComb and Durant, working with Cynthia Moss at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya, found was fascinating: Families headed by older matriarchs were significantly better at telling the differences between the sounds of friendly and unfriendly females, and in responding appropriately. The researchers proved this ability by playing recordings of various elephant calls. At the sound of an unfamiliar call, the families acted defensively. But when a call was recognized, families remained calm. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the families headed by aged matriarchs, with their long memory of friends and foes, tended to perform better in Darwinian terms; i.e., they had more calves. In other words, a herd with wise elders found itself better able to care for its young -- and for its future. Sadly for elephants young and old, long memories are unfortunately accompanied by equally long tusks of ivory. And so the specimens most prized by poachers are the same wise elders whose memories prove so vital to their families' survival. "In evolutionary terms," McComb wrote in Science, "you can see why intelligence was selected for." She points out that a matriarch's skill in assessing risks makes life safer and more successful for her family. Other scientists speculate that the loss of elder family members could also harm other social animals, such as whales or chimpanzees. McComb and the other scientists did not speculate on whether the findings were applicable to humans and to the social structures in which they live and work, including families and corporations. So neither will I. It would be an irresponsible leap of logic to assume that just because social animals have higher rates of survival when their collective wisdom is preserved that the same findings could also apply to human forms of organization. It would be similarly irresponsible to use this study to hypothesize that corporations might be better off finding ways to safeguard and preserve the accumulated experience of older staffers, rather than looking for ways to put them out to pasture. So don't expect me to use this column to draw some far-reaching conclusion about the value of your more experienced workers in a downturn. Like I said, this column is about elephants and elephants only. And don't you forget it. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is now editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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