Book Review: The Nature of Leadership: Reptiles, Mammals, and the Challenge of Becoming a Great Leader, by B. Joseph White, Reviewed by Mike Haberman

Having a professional background in dealing with people in a wide variety of leadership positions and an early educational background in studying animal behavior I looked forward to reading a book subtitled Reptiles, Mammals and the Challenge of Becoming a Great Leader. The premise of the book is that there are two sides of leadership, a hard and cold reptilian side and a soft and warm mammalian side. This dichotomy is pretty much the same as the numbers versus people sides of leadership or management.

White, who is the President of the University of Illinois, spends a brief chapter on various leadership theories. These include a bit on McGregor’s Theory X and Y, Blake and Mouton’s Leadership Grid, a little Herzberg and McClelland. He writes about the theory that leaders are born and not made, but then goes on to talk about a “leaders can be made” (hence his book.)

Using his reptilian/mammalian analogy, White puts his model of leadership together as a pyramid. The base of the pyramid consists of four characteristics. First is a desire to be in charge, followed by ability, strength and character. Without these you have no hope of being a leader. The implication is this is what you are born with.

The second component of his pyramid is the reptilian and mammalian traits. The reptilian side is described as “cold-blooded”, disciplined, economic sense, financial management, attention to detail, detached and analytical, among others. The mammalian side is “warm-blooded”, nurturing, people sense, attention to context, communication ability, delegate, empower, and others.

He then spends a couple of chapters describing the characteristics of these two sides. He warns us not to make value judgments about the “reptilian” traits being bad or the “mammalian” traits being good. He argues that both sets of traits are necessary for great leaders to have. The problem with this however, is that people do make judgments on labels and my guess is that not too many potential leaders would be thrilled as being described as having a reptilian style. Not many people want to be known as a “snake.”

The apex of White’s pyramid of leadership consists of the qualities he associates with being a great leader. According to White to be a good leader you must have both the reptile side and mammalian side capped with innovation, risk-taking, an appetite for talent, and what he calls the “helicopter view” and the “sparkle factor.” The “helicopter view” is perspective, looking ahead, back and sideways. The “sparkle factor” is charisma, presence and magnetism.

The book is an easy read that mixes in his personal leadership “journey” along with his observations about his leadership “heroes”. I think his reptilian/mammalian analogy is somewhat flawed (some reptiles can show great tenderness and some mammals can be very hard and cruel). However, it is somewhat of a novel way to discuss the “hard” and “soft” sides of management and leadership. I was left with a mixed message about the ability to become a great leader. He tells you what it takes to become a great leader but also leaves you with the message “if you ain’t got it, you ain’t gonna get it.” But, that said it is an easy introductory book on the concepts of leadership and is good for people who have not read a lot on the subject.

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