As the Louis Armstrong song lyric has it, “Birds do it, bees do it; even educated fleas do it.” Though the song is about falling in love, the lyric could also apply to leadership behavior. People are, of course, animals, so it stands to reason that some aspects of leadership among the humans would reflect some aspects of behavior among other critters. Before various species of hominids walked upright in the world, other species had been practicing varieties of behavior that look a lot like leadership. Many of these behaviors are well know to all of us, even those of us who have no special knowledge of animal behavior. It’s fairly easy to identify patterns of behavior that look like critters working together to adapt to challenging problems in their environments, especially in the assumption of different roles by different members of the hive, flock, herd, pride, or clan. Such roles are often distinguished by age, gender, strength, and skill. Ultimately, it’s not too difficult to recognize that the driving purpose of all the patterns of leadership behavior is the whole group’s survival and adaptation to a challenging environment.

Some of the behaviors summarized below are obvious to even the most casual observers; others have been described by expert animal behaviorists.

Bees. Like ants, wasps, and a few other complex species, bees are considered “eusocial” by scientists who study them. This means that bees, ants, wasps, and a few other species depend on social behavior that ultimately subordinates the individual critter to the welfare of the whole community. Considering the bees, life in every hive is organized around a female queen who is way bigger than any other member of the hive and whose primary function is to give birth to many little baby bees. In other words, the future of the whole bee community depends on the queen and on those who take care of the queen. Thus the queen is pampered, supported, and catered to constantly. The downside of the queen bee’s life, however, is that she never gets to do anything other than lie around and give birth to little baby bees over and over and over again. That may be necessary, but it seems depressingly boring to me.


Male bees are called “drones,” which implies that they don’t do much, but of course they do contribute their genetic material to the queen for the sake of reproduction. Other female bees are generally “worker bees” who spend much of their time out of the hive looking for and gathering nectar from flowers, the main ingredient in the honey that forms the bee diet. (And which is also coveted by human beings, some of whom make a living as beekeepers.) Worker bees communicate with each other in order to find significant sources of nectar. They do a little waggle dance and point their hind ends toward the nectar-laden flowers they have discovered so other worker bees can help deliver the goods back to the hive. Interestingly, the process of gathering nectar to make honey also benefits the flowers, whose reproduction depends on the process of fertilization by distributing pollen from plant to plant. Though worker bees are individually not as critical to the life of the hive as the queen, it seems to me that the life of a worker bee is a lot more interesting than the life of the queen.

Geese. Like many flying critters, geese migrate thousands of miles twice a year to make sure they never have to cope with the frigid challenges of winter. Geese, however, do not depend on a queen or any other individual member of the flock to ensure reproduction from generation to generation or survival from migration to migration. Instead, they have developed a strategy of collaboration whereby the stronger help the weaker and the adults take turns leading the flock on its northerly or southerly journey. The most distinctive and easily recognized goose behavior is the practice of flying in a V formation, which is an expression of aerodynamic engineering at its best. That formation generates the same kind of drafting process that bicycle racers, distance runners, and truckers in a convoy use to reduce the energy needed by everyone other than the leader. The goose at the head of the V is actually working several times harder than any of the other geese, so the flock agrees to rotate the leadership role as needed. The goose strategy for long-haul migration is rather democratic compared to the aristocratic strategy represented by a “queen” whose legitimacy in the role is dictated essentially by her genetic inheritance.


Goose behavior also expresses several other interesting features. “Pecking order” refers to the practice of allowing the largest and strongest offspring to eat first, thus ensuring what evolutionary theory calls the “survival of the fittest.” This practice is acceptable to all the offspring as long as the food supply is plentiful, but not when famine sets in. During migration, if one member of the flock suffers an injury or is otherwise handicapped, one other member of the flock is recruited to stay with the suffering member on the ground until the emergency passes or the suffering member dies. In the aftermath, the surviving goose or both geese hitch a ride with another passing flock, since all the migrating flocks are headed in the same direction. Finally, communication behavior helps to guide and structure interaction among the geese. The habit of loud honking during migration, for example, is apparently intended to encourage and inspire the goose at the front of the V, who is doing way more work than the rest of the flock. As with the queen bee, whose life is full of repetition and boredom, the leader of a goose migration pays a heavy price for being the leader.

Deer. All the rest of the species we will look at in this summary are mammals, which is the biological family that includes human beings. Deer are also called “ungulates,” which means they have hooves, and they live in relatively large herds. Animals who are hunted by predators tend to live in large herds or communities simply as a hedge against devastation by species who prey upon them. As is the case in all animal species, the most critical functions revolve around survival and reproduction. In the case of deer, females and their babies tend to congregate within an area surrounded by the young adult and adolescent males, who thus patrol the perimeter watching for and responding to threats from predators.


The obvious leader in a deer herd is an adult male who achieves his status in strenuous competition with other adult males to be crowned the “alpha” of the herd. The alpha male receives respect and deference from all the members of the herd and is accorded the privilege of breeding with all the adult females. The alpha male is indeed the “big daddy” of the herd, and his genetic material is passed down to the next generation way out of proportion to that of any other males in the herd. This pattern is another version of the “survival of the fittest.”


The actual process of the competition for alphahood is instructive. It essentially involves a series of head-butting clashes, which depends on the skill of the male deer in using his antlers as a weapon. The competition is seldom fatal to the losers, which ensures a cadre of warriors to ward off attacks by wolves and other predators. Females and their infants, of course, are not well equipped to fight but are more necessary to ensure the herd’s prospects for the next generation. And all the privileges and advantages of the alpha leader are ultimately balanced or outweighed by his responsibility to stand and fight attacking predators, which frequently proves fatal. Queen bees, geese at the head of the V, and alpha male deer all pay a heavy price for their special status. Leadership comes with special privileges and special responsibilities.

Lions. Like the alpha male leader of a deer herd, and like the alpha male leader of virtually all other mammal species, the alpha male of a lion pride is the most obvious leadership role-player. As usual, the central issues revolve around survival and reproduction, and all alpha male mammals want to make sure that they participate in most if not all of the reproducing. Alpha male lions seem to come right out of central casting, which probably explains why they show up in movie logos and why a lion community is called a “pride.” As is the case in virtually all other mammal species, there is a hierarchy of power not only among the male lions, but also among the females; the alpha female is the favored spouse within the harem of the alpha male.


As is the case among other predatory species, lion prides are quite small compared to the large herds of animals upon which they prey. Alpha male lions are not only fiercely competitive with the other males in the pride, they are also quite unwilling when it comes to spending time and energy hunting down prey. The female lions do virtually all the hunting, and they collaborate as a team to bring home the metaphorical bacon. They approach a herd of wildebeests or zebras from upwind to avoid detection by their smell. After they get close enough to initiate a chase, they target the youngest, oldest, weakest, and slowest members of the herd to make their job easier. Once the chase begins, the herd generally stampedes en masse, knowing instinctively that there is safety in numbers – a few members of the herd will probably not survive, but the vast majority will.


Once the hunt is over and the meal has been secured, the alpha male once again asserts his dominance by feasting first. Other members of the pride do their best to get their share, but they seldom challenge the alpha’s right to the best parts of a fresh carcass. In our next article, we’ll check out a few more species that sometimes act a bit the way we humans do.