10 Leadership lessons from Watership Down (contains spoilers from the original film)
Updated: Oct 12
Up until yesterday morning, my only lesson I'd dare offer from this rabbit hole was "Parental Guidance advised"...but, the rather violent imagery right from the get go, the spectre of General Woundwort, and the tear-jerking ending aside, there's a lot that can be learned from Watership Down as I rewatched the original after 35 years.
1.Leaders are the ones with followers
While Richard Adams' rabbit lore shows the warrens being run by a "chief" - represented in the form of an old-school patriarch, when the dissenting bunnies, moved by Fiver's vision choose to leave, it is Hazel who emerges as the leader. Hazel neither chooses to be "in charge", and arguably it seems as though "Bigwig" - older, gruffer, with a notable record of strength would be a natural choice. However, it is Hazel's ability to listen, to organise and to be clear in his instruction that results in the rest of the band both following and deferring to his decision...including Bigwig.
One of the key leadership lessons I teach is that you are only a leader if you have followers. You only need to look around your own organisations to see that although someone may have the title, they may still be a "leader" in name alone.
True leaders build trust through measured decisions, following through on plans, and listening to others, taking on board - and recognising - contributions. They know, in reality, no-one can lead alone!
2. History teaches us that the one thing that can be expected is the unexpected
Prior to Fiver's vision, the warren had not been threatened by building developments, but - as Holly explains later - those that didn't heed the warning met with an unconscionable end. I should add at this point, I am not advocating listening to "visions" alone. The film takes care to show Fiver's fear grow when he sees a cigarette butt - evidence of "man" - which underpinned his warning.
It is all too easy to prepare based on what we know. Firms are now likely to have pandemic procedures - which are essential for now, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't be aware of other risks that could occur. Of course it is impossible to foresee what is unknown and so specific planning is not possible, but the wise leaders will also take time to recognise what behaviours, what processes, what adaptations or collaborations worked well when the unexpected hit, as they may be what will provide a buffer in future.
3. Remember good ideas for later
On crossing the first river in their journey, Hazel and team come upon a raft. On discovering they could float not only does Hazel recognise Blackberry taking the initiative, but Blackberry also makes the point that they should "...remember it for later." Indeed, "later", Bigwig leads the escape from Efrafa via a boat - which the rabbits in pursuit do not recognise and assume is "a magic."
If something works, make a mental post it to reflect on it. It might be that it was relevant only to the moment, but knowing what is effective and what is not is still useful when it comes to the amount of information we have to contain in our minds.
4. The strongest team sticks together and appreciates their unique skills
Perhaps there was a desire on the part of Richard Adams to make each character different, but the skills of each rabbit were recognised. While Fiver, the runt of his litter, is originally ridiculed and seen as a hinderance on the journey at first, he is given credit for finding Watership Down as a place "high up with dry soil." When there is a need for the team to split up in order to beat General Woundwort and his rabbits, Bigwig and the strongest diggers are left to protect the weaker ones while the fastest runners take on the task of bringing the farm dog to help their escape. Notable also is the fact that the rabbits are all in it together - no-one shirks their role.
I often do a brainstorming exercise to demonstrate how prejudging can start any team off on a back foot. I ask people to come up with as many uses as they can for a bottle within 30 seconds, then individuals become pairs, then a group. Finally I ask the group to present the most unusual use for the bottle. In the debrief I explain how the task is not just about how "two heads are better than one" - but actually how other people may have a completely different style of thinking to us. The person who thinks the bottle should be a container for pencils is not likely to be the one to think it can be a filtration system. Regardless of the idea that is chosen, teams can reflect on how their own ideas have broadened by giving other a chance. (I then ask people to think about how often they mentally "shut down" others because of a preconception...a bit like with Fiver - and how this has consequences for their own growth.)
5. Collaborations can be effective
Despite birds being their enemy (an eagle carried off one of their band in the first 20 minutes of the film), Hazel's herd take pity on Seagull Kehaar whom they find injured by a cat. Despite clear differences in their personality - and everything they have each grown to believe about the other species, Kehaar becomes a friend to the rabbits, helping them throughout their journey.
As much as one would like to be self-sufficient, and as great a team as you might have, it is not always possible to achieve as much as you wish without developing extra skills or incorporating other talents. While it would sometimes be possible to "train" your own team, it may be that in the short term it can be cost effective to bring in outside collaborators. This also has the advantage of the collaborator being an expert in their field, and your team remaining expert in theirs rather than diluting their skills to take on others which they may not be suited for.
6. Stop when you need to stop
"They are tired and frightened" - the rabbits themselves recognise that collectively you are only as strong as your weakest link.
There are two ways of dealing with this - the first, as the rabbits choose, they all take time to recover - which benefits even the stronger ones. This is largely because the weaker rabbits, physically, (such as Fiver) had proved their skills in other areas. However, what if the situation - as more common in organisations - was different. What if Fiver was just lazy?
In Hastings & Meyer's "No Rule Rules" about the success of Netflix, they cite research which shows that there are three types of "apples" that can spoil a bunch. If a "plant" in a team was:
- A "jerk"
productivity would decrease by around 30-40% - the worse effects coming from the negative pessimist. As such the Netflix "rule" is to allow the underperforming team member (with no redeeming feature) to go with good grace in order to make room for someone who will better suit the work ethic. There is no malice, simply a "thank you for your time."
Stop when you need to stop can apply as much to your choice of work - if you are lacking either "skills, will, or you don't fit the bill" - both you and the organisation may be better off seeking elsewhere.
7. There is power in local knowledge
When Hazel gets shot it is seagull Kehaar who keeps repeating "Get the black stones out..." and indeed he picks out the buckshot assisting Hazel's recovery.
Especially when you join an organisation, or perhaps you set up in a new location, always seek out someone who can acquaint you with local knowledge. This will include the things they don't put in "standard operating procedures" such as whether to leave food on your plate at the end of a meal, and perhaps how to address others on greeting them. Not only is an awareness from people who know the area/project/people/product you are being introduced to likely to help you build rapport, but you might learn things which will help you practically too.
8. Trust in your deputies
It is Bigwig who leads the escape from Efrafa with the does rather than Hazel, and it is Bigwig who volunteers himself to do so telling Hazel his (Hazel's) place is with the rest of the herd. It is as much that Bigwig knows he has the build and experience to make General Woundwort's warren believe he is one of them, but that he also knows he is the most skilled to achieve the side mission. What is notable is that at first Hazel doesn't trust Bigwig as he is one of the disciplinarians of the original warren. Bigwig proves himself when he attacks a fellow guard to assist Hazel's initial escape and despite his manner which is gruff, he is accepted into the group. Indeed the mission is a success.
As a leader you will always need people you can turn to either for expansion projects, to "hold the fort", and so that you can yourself grow. Through delegation and opportunity not only do you provide your teams with the experience they need to progress themselves, but as they grow, you too can focus on pushing your own development further. The best leaders develop their teams through giving them the chance to shine in a setting where if they falter, they can be supported.
9. Reaching the goal is just the beginning When the herd arrive at Watership Down Hazel concedes “You know how you let yourself think that everything will be alright if you can only go to certain place or do a certain thing. But when you get there you find it's not that simple.” In Hazel's case they realise they have no doe rabbits in their group.
While we are often "programmed" to seek goal attainment, that moment - while a point of celebration - is simply the end of one chapter, and a new one is about to start. It is why so many do not maintain weight loss when they have reached their goal weight - goal is just the beginning.
While it is of course important to recognise and celebrate success, longevity means that plans must then be put in place to maintain that achievement, and use that as a starting point for the next step.
10. Cunning can match strength
As shown through the characters of the herd, but best described in the moral of the rabbit, it is not always strength that will win through "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”
It is not always the bigger fish that you must fear - but sometimes the faster one. The lion is likely to beat the wolf one-on-one, unless the wolf uses strategy to exhaust the lion, or calls upon his team. Just because something is bigger does not mean it is either better nor unbeatable always:
Know what YOU are trying to achieve
Use the methods designed for YOU (not for someone who is either different, or trying to attain a different goal.)
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; watch her psychology & coaching skill pill on YouTube Or catch her hosting Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV where she and her team discuss how psychology affects our behaviours in the workplace and what we can do about it.
Follow her on Twitter/IG @draudreyt (but she doesn't check it regularly anymore - it stole too much time and energy!)