A Powerful Leadership Lesson from the Crocodile Bird

A Powerful Leadership Lesson from the Crocodile Bird 1024 682 The Body Corporate

Natural history journals and biology books carry the beautiful story of the little bird that bravely enters the mouth of a live crocodile to clean its teeth. The bird gets a meal, and in return the croc gets its dental hygiene. You will be surprised by how important this lesson is for the student of leadership.

The Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) has inhabited riverbeds for millions of years. As early as the 5th Century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus described this symbiotic relationship. The “Father of History”, known to have been the first to initiate the systematic collection of historic narrative, described the way the crocodile would come out of the water to bask in the sun with its mouth wide open. The little birds would hop around the giant, entering the mouth without apparent fear to pick away at meal remnants between the sharp teeth of the crocodile. The pretty little bird is the Egyptian Plover (Pluvianus egyptius), and has been colloquially dubbed the Crocodile Bird as a result of this history.

What can we human leaders learn from this moving account of symbiosis? The value of deep interdependence is strikingly obvious. If we spent our working lives looking for opportunities where we can enter relationships with reciprocal benefit we would all be much richer. I take great pleasure introducing two friends with common interests and always wish them a “mutually fruitful” encounter. I’m sure that you will all have your own examples of a valuable symbiosis. But is this the best lesson we can learn from this legend?

To answer this question, lets explore the story a little closer. Search the Internet and you will find many authoritative accounts of this symbiotic relationship. Many of the accounts are in textbooks used to educate young biology students. Read further, and you’re in for a shock.

This story is the subject of great controversy amongst natural scientists! Most don’t believe that it ever happens. I challenge you to find a single photograph or video that documents this alleged practice (beware, you will find many fakes). It is certainly true that crocodiles bask in the sun with their mouths wide open. It is certainly true that plovers flit around the riverbanks with little regard or fear for the ancient reptiles. It is remotely possible that, in error, the occasional bird might hop onto the open mandible of a sleepy croc. You see, crocs don’t really need an avian dentist. Their teeth are widely spaced in their jaws with very few interdental crevices in which leftovers can become trapped. Second, crocs don’t chew. They rip and swallow with sharp teeth and immensely powerful jaws. Thirdly, they have multiple layers of teeth in order to facilitate their traumatic eating habits. As one tooth breaks off, another one right behind it steps up in the line of duty to replace it. No doubt there are bacteria that remain lurking in the croc’s mouth after meals (they have a passion for decaying meat too, keeping leftovers in watery larders). It may well be that sunning their teeth provides ultraviolet cleaning, but the story of the brave little bird is largely unsubstantiated.

It turns out that the biggest lesson in leadership is to verify your facts! Before trusting vox populi, you need to do a little research yourself. No leader can be master of all the technical domains for which they are responsible. A combination of curiosity and focused research will enable the leader to have sufficient insight to judge the integrity of the critical information they rely on for decision-making. Even enduring popular support is not a substitute for accurate observation and intelligent interpretation.

Life and leadership are beautiful, colorful journeys. Mother Nature is always happy to help us with models and analogies. I wish you many more happy surprises, even detours, on your path towards informed self-actualization and leadership.

Have fun,