What Wolves can Teach Us About Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging

Naureen Bhullar

- April 25, 2022

I decided to read Elli H Radinger’s book, “The wisdom of wolves: What wolves can teach us to be more human” as I was motivated by my father’s intrinsic fascination about animal behaviour and its similarities with humans and his admiration for this brave animal. Wolves symbolize loyalty, strong family ties, communication, intelligence and teamwork in the Native American tradition

On the other hand, just like minorities and marginalized communities in the human world, Radinger draws a parallel with the bad press wolves have received at times, including the “big bad wolf” from Red Riding Hood due to the limited knowledge and deeply ingrained prejudice against the animal. Some of these fears have been attributed to their preying on farm animals like sheep. Most of the wolf symbolism in western tradition, including the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, Shakespeare, and Aesop’s fable has been overwhelmingly negative as they are portrayed as “evil” or “tricksters” and the scientific study of this species has found this depiction to be completely inaccurate. While the truth is that wolves have co-existed with many species for eons and they are not even among the top 20 animals responsible for greatest number of human deaths, which has man at number one and dogs at number four. They have been hunted to extinction in several parts of the world due this prejudice and unfounded fears.

Due to my interest in diversity, inclusion, and belonging, this book about wolf behaviour opened my eyes for the specific lessons wolves have to offer for humans from the DEI perspective. Radinger has examined their behaviour in the wild (primarily in the Yellowstone National Park in the US) for more than 25 years. She cautions against the stereotypes associated with wolves, grown from observations of their behaviour in captivity, which differ completely from their behaviour in the wild. Humans in prisons behave quite differently from humans in their typical habitat without restrictions.

Similarities with humans

The close parallels between wolves and humans are noted in their emotions, personalities (Type A and Type B), child-rearing styles, and collaborations in wolf packs. They express grief by howling for days after losing their loved ones and some even reported to die from a broken heart. They have been known to sacrifice their own lives to save their families during wolf fights for their home territories. They look after their injured members, with the sick and old fed till they recover. They almost never abandon their elderly and treat them tenderly, bringing regurgitated food to the infirm from their hunts, just like they do with their young infants. Not all wolves pair up either. There are aunts and uncles who take care of their siblings’ children just as the siblings take care of their younger siblings. It is similar to joint families in several human cultures, without the compulsion of everyone to pair up and reproduce. The wolf pups learn and follow the “Golden Rule” in their play with their peers, siblings, and other pack members, when they test the limits of their strength in non-hunting situations and learn to treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. Evolutionary biologists believe that animals who play fair and learn such codes of behaviour for their group are more likely to flourish and survive.

Radinger believes that wolves and humans understand each other better than other primates like chimpanzees understand humans or vice-versa. Chimpanzees don’t help in taking care of the young ones of others (siblings or otherwise) or look after their old. There is a reason that wolves’ descendants (dogs) formed a close relationship with humans several millennia ago and not the monkeys.

What can humans learn from the wolves? 

Wolves show behaviours that reinforce the benefits of gender equality, gender-agnostic leadership and diversity in general (across other demographic characteristics like outward characteristics and age).

Gender & Leadership

Gender equality in wolves is common with tasks divided according to the abilities and skills of individuals and it is not gender specific. Female wolves often make the most important decisions for hunting and habitats for the wolf packs. The term alpha males and alpha females are outdated in field research. “Pack leaders” is the more accepted term and can be either males or females. Leadership is not associated with aggression. It involves empathy from the pack leaders and an emphasis on keeping the pack united and in harmony to ensure the well-being of everyone. This ensures the success and survival of the wolf packs. Female leadership in humans has often been linked to empathy and a personable approach. This was also evident among human female leaders during the COVID crisis and research showed that women leaders may be better in the term of crisis and they were rated more highly on overall leadership effectiveness.

Benefits of diversity

Having an older wolf is seen as an advantage that makes a pack more successful due to the past knowledge and experience the senior wolves bring to their decision-making. They know when to avoid conflict and subsequently increase chances of survival of the pack. They are “highly prized” members of the family.  

An unusual and mutually beneficial relationship that I learnt from this book was the close association between wolves and ravens in the aptly titled chapter, “Almost best friends: How in spite of all your differences, you can be a perfect team”. They differ from each other starkly but help each other reach their goals and often co-exist mostly amicably but with playful teasing interspersed. 

This relationship reminds us of the workplace where people from different backgrounds come together and are able to work in collaboration towards common goals successfully especially in knowledge-oriented tasks. This highlights the advantage of diverse teams over homogenous teams as the ravens’ specific ability to spot potential prey for wolves from the skies and signalling to them gives both the benefit of getting their food together in a quicker and more efficient manner, which the two species alone may not achieve in the same time period. Their external characteristics are extrinsically tied to their internal traits, and this is what Scott Page describes in his book, “The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy”. Cognitive diversity comes from our identities, life and work experiences, and educational paths. Often, we hear company and HR leaders valuing cognitive diversity over identity diversity (gender, race, sexual orientation, region, language), when the fact is that identity diversity is strongly correlated and also has a causal link with cognitive diversity in many cases.

WWWD- “What would wolves do?” 

In the epilogue of the book, Radinger finds herself asking this question whenever faced by an uncertain situation. She emphasizes the greatest lesson wolves can offer in almost any situation – love of family, to never give up and to never stop playing. And most importantly, adapting to a new situation. This adaptation is crucial for diversity and inclusion as well as more and more people from underrepresented and marginalized groups (across gender, race, sexual orientation, region, class) enter the workforce and the majority group members learn to adapt their language and workplace structures to ensure the feelings of true belonging for everyone to reap the benefits of diverse identities and cognitive repertoires.

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