Learning to read your business environment – the bushman’s skill every leader needs to survive

There is wisdom to be found by looking back into our ancestral past, which can assist in building more sustainable businesses. Trevor Hough explores this concept while taking lessons from the ‘Bushmen of the Kalahari’

Our consultancy has embarked on some research with CEOs we work with of late and asked them what about leading their businesses keeps them up at night. We had numerous responses, but one that repeatedly came up was the problem of an increase of siloes in their businesses and therefore a decrease in collaboration. They also pointed out that they were concerned about not having sufficient information to timeously adapt to external factors that might endanger their businesses. This was of great interest to us in that, as a consultancy, we focus very specifically on how culture enables or disables both adaptation and collaboration.

It was the social psychologist Edgar Schein from MIT’s Sloan School of Business who helped to bring the concept of culture from the domains of anthropology and social psychology into organisations. Schein clearly shows us how a groups culture are the embedded underlying assumptions and learnings that allow the group to successfully achieve the dual survival tasks of external adaptation and internal integration. The corporate world is full of examples of adaptation failures, and the consequent disappearance of these organisations, with Kodak and Blockbuster being two such examples.


If, as Schein says, leadership’s primary function is managing culture, then paying attention to what is happening both inside and outside of the organisation, to ensure adaptation agility, is paramount. Our experience of working with organisations globally has shown us that too often leaders are focusing on quarterly results, regulatory requirements, and balance sheet efficiencies. Though these are important for business success, they distract leaders from focusing on wider global systemic issues that require attention to allow quick adaptation.

We further see how organisations have become siloed, and how different business units know little about each other, let alone how to collaborate. We have witnessed how this has become even more prevalent with the lockdowns and remote working brought about by the current pandemic. This has not happened by chance. In fact, the rise of specialisation and individualism, that underpins modern business, has led directly to this. What is most concerning about this is the lack of sustainability of many businesses, if not the current economic system as we know it.

Ancestral wisdom

Though the above picture might sound gloomy, I believe that there is wisdom, if not solutions, to be found by looking back into our ancestral past. Wisdom that can assist in building more sustainable businesses.

The Sān people – also known as Khwe, Sho, and Basarwa, of the Kalahari Desert and regions of Southern Africa – are the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa. The word Sān is from the Khoekhoe language and simply refers to foragers (‘those who pick things up from the ground’), who do not own livestock. These people are sometimes referred to as ‘Bushmen of the Kalahari’. 

The Sān people have a fascinating social structure. They live in lateral rather than hierarchical small family groups of up to 50 people. There are no political or religious leaders within the clan. They truly practice distributed leadership based on experience of the task at hand. Only in some cases does an elder play a leading role in matters such as hunting and where to camp but this role is usually as a result of his experience.  

The Sān live in a simultaneously lateral relationship with their external environment. They are intimately attuned to all of the ecosystems they live within and constantly track changes within these systems. The Sān have managed to survive in one of the most inhospitable territories on the planet thanks to their deep knowledge of the environment. They have an incredible knowledge of animals and their habits and are able to recognise and use 400-500 local plants.

The Sān people are expert trackers and they are able to read their environment like three dimensional maps. Walking out of their family home, they track the weather, animal spoor on the ground, the sounds of birds and other animals, smells left by a wide array of creatures. This is all done with the purpose of providing food for the entire family group and doing so in a sustainable manner. The Sān live as part of the ecosystems surrounding them rather than attempting to control them. Through this constant tracking of their external environment, the Sān are sensitised to cycles and changes to these cycles. This has allowed them to adapt for over 20,000 years.

Bush craft

After more than 20 years of practicing as both a clinical psychologist and an organisation development consultant, I decided to follow a dream and trained as a game ranger in the northern parts of South Africa. The training required a year of theoretical studies followed by a period of living in a tent in the bush acquiring practical skills necessary for the craft. This practical training was conducted by indigenous trackers who had had their craft passed down to them for generations.

Our days started early each morning at around 4.30 am. We would be led on walks around our camp, being shown the spoor of the animals that had passed by during the night and being taught the sounds of different birds and animals and what each call was saying. We were taught to recognise different smells as well as indicators of fresh water. After a while we were tested, over and over again, on what we had been taught via field exams. It was only when we had mastered these sights, sounds and smells that we began actually tracking animals. We learned to track both herbivores and carnivores on foot, often without shoes in order to remain silent. We learned how to become aware of the presence of these animals well before we saw them, and most definitely before they saw us. At first we were accompanied by a tracker with a rifle however, as we gained confidence, we tracked them alone and without a firearm. The craft of tracking makes use of what is termed ‘situational awareness’ – being constantly aware of what is happening not just around you but also what is happening inside of you.

The training I received was but a taste of the wonderful craft of tracking that traces back centuries. However it has had a profound impact on me and honed my skills of ‘situational awareness’ in assisting me to adapt and survive in the African bush. I have returned to my life as a consultant and psychologist, but have fortunately remained living in a game reserve in the bush. The lessons I learned from these wonderful trackers assist me daily in the new environment I live in, but almost more importantly they have proved really useful in navigating and adapting in my work with organisations.

Situational awareness

I believe that the honing of ‘situational awareness’ is an integral skill required by anyone taking up leadership, and an important way of navigating the increasing specialisation and silo’fication of organisations.

The development of ‘situational awareness’ fortunately does not require moving to the African bush, although I would highly recommend it. It is something that can be honed wherever you find yourself. It requires curiosity about the systems you function within. It requires developing the habit of paying attention to all of your senses as you move around in your specific environments. It requires lifting your heads from electronic devices and noting what is happening outside of your specific work place teams. Like any muscle, the more we work on our ‘situational awareness’ the stronger and more attuned it becomes, and in so doing allows us to pro-actively adapt where and when necessary. 

I believe that what the current pandemic has taught us is that we have far less control of our environments than we believed we did. We have learned that we do not function above our ecosystems but, as the Sān taught us, an integral part of them. In order to create sustainable organisations I truly believe that paying much wider attention to what goes on around us is an imperative leadership skill set. When practiced, paid attention to and rewarded by leaders, it will become a cultural norm and will allow us to do what Schein taught us ‘adapt and not die out’.  

Trevor Hough is a clinical psychologist, executive coach and Principal Organisation Development Consultant at Blacklight Advisory. His new book What Lies Beneath: How Organisations Really Work is out now, published by Phoenix Publishing.

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