On our family’s recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, we experienced some of the phenomena peculiar to this archipelago that helped inform Charles Darwin’s controversial and ground-breaking theories in On the Origin of Species.
“Natural selection,” Darwin wrote, “is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into past geological ages, that we see only that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.”
Beyond its historical, scientific and even religious significance, Darwin’s theories of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” are manifestos for today’s business leaders.
The line separating successful companies from those that habitually under-perform or fail can be so fine that leaders, as Darwin suggests, may miss seeing it “until the hand of time reveals it.” Yet that line—while fine—is often unforgiving.
Consider these characteristics taking their cue from nature. Are they alive and flourishing in your organization or threatening your survival?
- Protect your environment. The 13 major and seven minor islands comprising the Galapagos archipelago are protected by the World Wildlife Fund and Galapagos Conservancy. These groups are committed to preserving the flora and fauna unique to each island’s ecosystem by minimizing tourism’s impact. In your organization, the responsibility of creating and nurturing a vibrant, caring and effective culture starts at the top. Culture is not a program or committee. It’s the sum of your behavior. It’s easy to recognize healthy cultures when we experience them. And we recognize cultures (and leaders) condoning fear, politics and double standards for what they are: toxic. In these ecosystems, truth and new ideas are feared. When employees are afraid to tell the boss the truth (or the boss is afraid to admit the truth), the organization is in trouble.
- Use it or lose it. The owl is a nocturnal predator in other parts of the world. In the Galapagos Islands, the owl sits atop the food chain with no natural enemies. With abundant sources of food, the owl now hunts during the day. The National Geographic Society published its first magazine in 1888 and 26 years later brought far-off locations into living rooms with spectacular color photographs. When subscriptions plummeted in the 1990s, CEO John Fahey feared following in the path of “Life” magazine so he reinvented the brand across all media platforms, especially the National Geographic Channel, launched in 2001. Today, social networking and photo-sharing sites provide National Geographic new platforms to showcase its award-winning photography. Smart organizations watch, listen and learn from suppliers, customers and competitors to improve, innovate and adapt. Organizations that are unwilling or unable to unlearn and re-learn are doomed to extinction.
- Nature wastes nothing. The Galapagos Islands lie 620 miles (1,000km) west of Ecuador. Every animal in the archipelago arrived through the air (birds) or the water, including sea lions (the islands’ only indigenous mammals) and iguanas, which likely floated to the islands on vegetation millions of years ago. Nature is the great equalizer, and she wastes nothing. Remains of dead animals and leaves dropping from deciduous trees are attacked by decomposers, scavengers and wind, water, sun and time. Mediocre businesses, meanwhile, waste precious resources on a regular basis. Show me a struggling business and I’ll show you a group of executives that squandered time, talent, money, relationships, their competitive advantage and the next big idea.
- Getting help is not being weak…it’s being smart. Spanish explorers who discovered the islands in the 16th century named them galápago, Spanish for “tortoise.” In the 17th century, pirates began using the islands as a base for resupplying their provisions. The relatively immobile and defenseless tortoises were collected and stored live on board pirate ships where they could survive for at least a year without food or water, providing valuable fresh meat. The tortoise population was threatened with extinction between the 1790s and the 1860s when whaling ships and fur sealers collected an estimated 200,000 tortoises. Without help, this population would eventually disappear. The tortoises couldn’t ask for help, but you can. Anyone performing at the top of their game has someone to turn to for advice, an outside perspective, and accountability, especially when planning for the future. Tennis and golf stars have coaches. You can, too. A strategic planning facilitator can help you identify your company’s hidden strengths and weaknesses and help form the strategy that will take the game to the next level of success.
After the objectives have been set, the strategies selected and the team engaged, it all comes down to execution. So it is in life, business, government, academia, sports and school. Perform or perish.
Stay alive, adapt and execute your new plan. Then adapt again if your plan, your programs and your people are not delivering the results you expect.
So if you remember nothing else, remember Darwin’s view of success: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is most adaptable to change.”