Leadership Lessons from Jane Goodall’s Life

I have been reading In the Shadow of Man, which is a book that Jane Goodall wrote originally in 1971 to chronicle her early work with the chimpanzees in Gombe Stream, Tanzania. The book provides interesting insight into how she first set up her research there in 1960, being a young white woman in her 20’s, and how she grew to gain the trust of both the villagers and chimps so that she could observe the animals’ behavior and lifestyle.

What really surprised me about Goodall’s life is that when she first started her work she had no formal experience or education in this area. At the time she was a secretarial school graduate who was working with the famous anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey and he offered her the job of going to Tanzania to conduct a scientific study of chimp behavior. Goodall writes that she was surprised that he would offer her such a position with no experience and formal training. She says that Leakey responded that she was actually unencumbered by the lack of education and showed a real love for animals and understanding them. She did eventually get a doctorate from University of Cambridge and because world famous for her over 40 years of studying chimps and making breakthrough discoveries into their behavior.

What I realized in reading the book was that Dr. Leakey saw in Goodall a passion for animals, and that outweighed all the conventional wisdom about the background and qualifications that she ‘needed’ to undertake this research. I am a big fan of education, having a master’s degree, but I found it refreshing that Leakey made his choice the way that he did, placing her passion and desire for knowledge above actually having it in a formal sense.

As leaders working with people, especially in our world today, I think this is an important lesson for us all as we look for the ‘right’ people for projects and positions.

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