Wild Leadership Learning from Polar Bears

leaders can learn from polar bears.

You may or may not know – but Polar Bears are on the endangered species list. Polar Bears have so much to teach people! Here are just a few of the leadership lessons I see from my research into them.

Polar Bears understand respect.

Most of us are not experiencing the treacherous break room refrigerator battles right now as teams have moved to remote settings. But, reflect to not that long ago when – people would eat your unlabeled food in the work frig, or better yet people would leave food in the work frig for weeks, and it would spoil and mold. Both of these examples are entirely disrespectful for the rest of the team trying to use the refrigerator!

Get this – Polar bears have a cool nose-to-nose greeting around food. In the wild, a polar bear may approach another polar bear for food. They engage in a nose-to-nose greeting, which symbolizes a respectful way for a polar bear to ask a fellow bear to share some food.

Let’s take this illustration a bit broader than just the work frig, though.

From human nature, we know that people, in general, do not make a 180 degree turn out of nowhere. Often when we are talking about principles like respect, it can be different to quantify or determine progress. Embodying respect really has to do with a leader’s self-awareness and intrinsic desire to do better.

What does do better mean?

Consider the 10% principle. In this illustration – what might it look like if you were 10% more respectful? Here, we rely on iterative change; these gradual and small changes bring life-lasting transformation over time. So, consider…

  • How might our teams and organizations transform if we integrated about 10% more respect?
  • What about integrating 10% more proactive communication between team members?
  • What about having 10% more individualized focus on your team? Maybe through scheduled one-to-one chats, dedicated slack channels based on interest area, or even virtual team building experiencing (have you tried an online escape room with your organization?!)

Polar Bears teach by modeling behaviors

Like many animals, polar bears model behaviors. Adult polar bears understand the need to model fighting to their cubs. It is widespread for the adults to play fight with their cubs to understand, practice, and become proficient for their adult living. I’m certainly not suggesting leaders pick up on the illustration’s fighting aspect but rather the modeling behaviors needed for long-term success.

Each industry and organization within an enterprise has its systems, ways of operating, and culture. One way to grow additional leaders within our contexts is for current leaders to model behaviors that are important to the organization’s sustainability.

  • Who are you mentoring on your team?
  • How are you helping others in your organization develop as leaders?
  • What behaviors can you authentically model?

What about your organization?


Laforest, B. J., Hébert, J. S., Obbard, M. E., & Thiemann, G. W. (2018). Traditional ecological knowledge of polar bears in the northern eeyou marine region, québec, canada. Arctic, 71(1), 40-58. doi:10.14430/arctic4696

Lillie, K. M., Gese, E. M., Atwood, T. C., & Sonsthagen, S. A. (2018). Development of on‐shore behavior among polar bears (ursus maritimus) in the southern beaufort sea: Inherited or learned? Ecology and Evolution, 8(16), 7790-7799. doi:10.1002/ece3.4233

PAGANO, A. M., DURNER, G. M., AMSTRUP, S. C., SIMAC, K. S., & YORK, G. S. (2012). Long-distance swimming by polar bears (Ursus maritimus) of the southern beaufort sea during years of extensive open water. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 90(5), 663-676. doi:10.1139/z2012-033

World Wildlife

Polar Bears International