A Beaver’s Leadership Advice—Additive Leadership

“Great things are done through a series of small things brought together.”

-Vincent Van Gough

Success is not a destination. It is a continuing journey. Just like walking, the surest way forward is two consecutive steps. The two consecutive steps that will carry you to leadership success are having a compelling vision and working collaboratively through additive leadership.

1.    Have a compelling vision.

It is critical to have a shared vision for the organization. Those who set out to ‘get rich quick’ seldom do and usually end up with far less than what they started with. The vision does not have to be the next Google or Facebook. It simply needs to be one that the market values sufficiently to profitably sustain you and your team.

Arie De Geus offers wise insight into sustainable organizations in his contrarian book, “The Living Company.”[i] Through his 38 years as a manager for Royal Dutch Shell he discovered “the most enduring companies treat their enterprises as ‘living work communities’ rather than purely economic machines.” Like a living, growing, thriving entity, the company provides a good life for the people. The people, in turn, are good stewards of the company, ensuring it remains healthy and thriving over the long run.

This advice is far different than the exploitative behaviors seen within many organizations today. When people feel that the company has no vested interest in them, they will not have a lasting interest in the company. Remember what we have learned throughout history, exploitation invariable leads to rebellion.

2.    Work collaboratively through additive leadership and methodically work towards your shared vision nearly every day.

Since growing a living company is important, let us look at a truly natural company—beavers. You may be asking what can beavers teach us about business. Trust me, there is much to learn from beavers. They work collaboratively and systematically towards a common vision. They are working together to help both the individual and the organization thrive.

Though it is doubtful that the industrious rodents have ever seen the impressionistic paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, they certainly embody his advice that great things are done through a series of small things brought together. Their steady work ethic can change the world.

In 2010, a Canadian ecologist Jean Thie located the world’s largest beaver dam using Google Earth and NASA technology while researching the rate of melting permafrost in the country’s far north. Generations of beavers, working steadily over decades constructed a dam that spans 2,788 feet (850 meters), more than twice the length of the Hoover Dam.[ii]

The beavers did not build this overnight. They surely did not build it with every new beaver manager feeling like they had to ‘make their mark’ by abandoning or tearing down what had been done before. Quite the opposite, each successive generation of beavers honored what had been done before, improved and built upon it until their creation could be seen from space.

Unfortunately, too many managers do not follow the example of the beaver. In their zeal to further their own careers, they destroy or abandon existing systems, norms, and processes by degrading, demoralizing, and sowing seeds of resentment and dissension among those who have been working long and hard for years in the organization. This is not to say you should not examine what is in place. There are times that an organization may need change, sometimes a dramatic change. However, if you follow the beavers’ example when you join an organization, you will be able to see which structures are working well. You can build towards the vision and use them as a foundation for a healthy growth. By building on what is working, you demonstrate additive leadership that strengthens and improves the organization thereby fostering a strong culture and renewing the organization with significant buy-in from the team.


1. Arie de Geus, www.ariedegeus.com

2. The Telegraph (May 10, 2010) “World’s biggest beaver dam can be seen from space,” www.telegraph.co.uk

Post Script: You may be thinking, hey, those beavers did not set out to have the world’s largest dam. True, and that will be the start of next week’s discussion on improvisational change.

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