The Ecology of Management & Leadership

Posted on May 20, 2024

Graphic of business people standing within a graph with text, "The Ecology of Management & Leadership."

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  • What I’m Reading: Elements of Ecology (9th Edition)
  • A Hobby I Enjoy: Birding
  • My Least-Used Degree: B.S. Ecology

The natural science of ecology, a branch of biology, concerns the relationship between living things and their natural environment. Ecologists (those who study ecology) study the interactions of individual organisms at differing levels of the environment – individuals, communities, ecosystems, and biospheres. Ecology is an important area of study within the broader sphere of biology because ecologic principles describe system-level relationships between organisms and their environments, as opposed to the specific biology of individual organisms as described in other subsets of biology. 

Just as ecologists use ecological principals to observe the natural world, local government leaders can apply ecological principles to better understand management and leadership within an organization. Like the natural environment, local governments consist of differing levels of increasing size – individuals, teams, departments, and organizations. The interactions between individuals at the different levels of the organization are important to leaders because they inform the one’s strategy of leadership. In this thought experiment, we will apply a singular principle of ecology, species strategy, to the environment of local government so that we can examine the ecology of management and leadership.

Species Strategies & r/K-Selection

The ecological principle species strategy describes how selective pressures shape the evolution of species towards one of two categories, r-strategists or K-strategists. The terms r and K come from the underlying algebraic equation used to calculate population dynamics in an ecosystem. Also known as r/K-selection, this theory suggests that the selection or combinations of traits in an organism describe the tradeoff between quantity and quality of offspring. r-selected species are more opportunistic and emphasize high growth rates, while K-selected species prioritize quality of offspring over quantity and their populations remain stable over time. 

The terminology of r/K-selection was coined by ecologists Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson in the 1960s while presenting their body of work concerning island biogeography. The heuristic, r/K-selection, and the term for those who exhibit the respective traits, r/K-strategists, remains effective terminology in modern ecology. Curious minds will read about the modern terms of “fast and slow life history,” but for the purpose of this discussion, we will apply the standard usage of r/K-selection. 

r-Selected Traits of Leaders

r-strategists are species that emphasize high growth rates and favor opportunism to exploit less competitive niches. Those species that exhibit these traits have numerous offspring that require less energy inputs from the parent, but are less likely to survive to adulthood. Stated simply, r-strategists favor quantity over quality with offspring. Species that are r-strategists find success in challenging environments because they are easily able to adapt to changes. Examples of r-selected species include bacteria, insects, and rodents.

r-selected traits of local government leaders include networking and professional development. Networking is the process of making connections and building relationships and one’s network as a reflection of their work and interests. Consider a professional network of 1,000 individuals. Each of those connections have unique backgrounds, insights, and opinions, all of which influence the individual. If a leader with a professional network of this size was to solicit the opinions of their network, they could easily receive information that is relevant to their cause. Taking the example further, with a network of 1,000 people, the chances that a leader knows someone with relevant information are higher than if the network is smaller. This is a r-selected trait because the leader with a larger network has the advantage over someone with a smaller network. 

Like networking, professional development is an r-selected trait of local government leaders. In an industry (or environment) with ever-changing and diverse challenges, leaders need to stay abreast of emerging topics. As new issues arise, leaders who try to understand them resemble the opportunistic qualities of an r-selected species. We know that professional development is a key trait of a good leader, but the continuous learning aspect of professional development is an r-selected trait of a leader. When compared to an r-strategist in nature, leaders who exhibit these traits tend to be more flexible and able to adapt to a changing environment. Local government leaders may already recognize that being nimble in the workplace is critical to success.

K-Selected Traits of Leaders

In contrast with r-selection, species that are K-strategists exist near the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, which means that rather than exhibiting opportunistic traits, K-strategists exist within their ecosystems at equilibrium, which means the number of these species remains relatively flat over time. There are generally fewer K-strategists in an ecosystem compared to r-strategists because they exhibit traits such as longer life expectancy and altruism. The offspring of K-selected species require more parental care, but are more likely to make it to adulthood. Examples of K-selected species include humans, eagles, and elephants.

K-selected traits of local government leaders include leadership and mentorship. For those managing teams or organizations, the idea of leadership may seem redundant. While the ability to lead is often implied for those in leadership roles, the act of leadership does not come innately to all. If leadership is the ability of an individual to guide members of an organization, and the effectiveness of a leader can be measured by their span of control (e.g. number of direct reports), then one can argue that leadership is a K-selected trait. The time and effort a leader invests into guiding staff directly affects the overall health of the organization. 

Like K-strategists living within their ecosystems, there is a carrying capacity of leaders within an organization. Healthy organizations invest in the right leaders, who in turn invest their energy into the success of their staff. This is evidenced by measuring the negative impacts of turnover. Most local government leaders have experienced the frustration with losing talent in the workplace. To replace a talented or long-term employee means their years of institutional knowledge, skill, and savvy needs to be transferred to the replacement. This task is incredibly energy intensive for the manager and has the potential to divert energy (and support) from other staff. If we compare this example to a K-strategist in nature that loses offspring, we see a similar loss of return on the energy investment. 

Another K-selected trait of leaders is mentorship. While similar to leadership, mentorship pertains to the individual relationship between a leader and staff. The difference between leadership and mentorship is an important distinction to make, because it speaks to the transfer of knowledge from a more experienced individual to one who is more junior. The natural comparison is to the relationship between parent and offspring. Just as parents raise young in the wild, mentors help to guide and prepare their mentees for career advancement. It is important to highlight that altruism is a trait of K-strategists, and mentorship is a uniquely altruistic trait of leaders. 

The Ecology of Local Government Management & Leadership

In ecology, the focus on either an increased quantity of offspring at the expense of individual parental investment of r-strategists, or on a reduced quantity of offspring with a corresponding increased parental investment of K-strategists, varies widely. For ecologists modeling population, the traits that a species exhibits are done so to promote success in the species’ respective environments.

Concerning the ecology of a local government, leaders who understand how r- and K-selected leadership traits influence their management strategy can do so to promote their own success in the local government environment.

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