Rosie Tomkins: How your business can create a ‘Leadership Simulator’

By Rosie Tomkins, author of ‘N-stinctive

When you fly you put your life in your pilots’ hands because you know they have spent hundreds of hours in a flight simulator. They are experts at what they do, because they know how it feels when they lose the tyre on take-off. They know how it feels to land a jumbo jet in a fierce crosswind or to fly through an electric storm. Most of all, as a passenger you are reassured by their confidence in their own ability to cope under pressure, whatever happens.

We can learn about techniques and processes from books, videos and classroom teaching – and all this is useful and necessary, but it’s not enough. Like the pilot we also need ‘real’ experience of a variety of situations.

As business leaders, we need a Leadership Simulator where we can hone our skills, make mistakes without catastrophic results, celebrate our innate qualities and those of our teams, and initiate new ways and ideas without suppression.

I believe this Leadership Simulator has to be outside the classroom, it has to be experiential, and it has to include the “nature factor” (NQ), working alongside other living flora and fauna. Why? Because we need to get immediate feedback. In nature we have the perfect simulator which can allow us to practice and give us instant feedback. Imagine getting such feedback in a non-judgemental way from another living thing (that has no vested interest). It would be, and is, incredibly valuable!

So, how do we create a Leadership Simulator in nature?

There are many ways to do this, but the simplest is to look at what’s already around us. We can all learn from our everyday experience of the nature we encounter in our home or just outside our door. These different scenarios in nature are there for everyone to observe and can be used to form leadership insights, or living metaphors to make us better leaders. Nature is the ultimate Leadership Simulator, so start by stepping outside your comfort zone into a different environment and welcoming new perspectives.

Here are a few suggestions to help you create your own Leadership Simulator:


First Scenario – The Spider

In nature – Spiders are truly amazing creatures. For many they are considered household pests and scary or dirty. However, when you take a deeper look at the life of a spider there are many attributes that could resonate strongly within a successful business team. For example;

  • Patience – A spider is the master of patience. They trust in their abilities to create the perfect web and will wait patiently (sometimes for days) for their next meal, only moving to make small adjustments to their web.
  • Resilience – How many times have we purposely or inadvertently broken a spider’s web? Many! Yet they are able to find the energy and composure to begin again. They are resilient against all kinds of threat and can always move to a less volatile space to build their next home.
  • Strategy – The placement of their web can make the difference between eating and hunger. It can also make the difference between a few days of safety and needing to rebuild from scratch within a few hours. Building a web takes a considerable amount of time and energy for a spider, so they only want to do it once!
  • Creativity/Artistic – Take a close look at a spider’s web and you’ll notice the incredible intricacy of the silk strands. They truly are architectural masters and talented artists.

Simulation – Why does this all matter? And what does it have to do with leadership? Well, depending on what lens you have on a team, it can look very different. What could be seen as inactivity in one glance might be seen as patience in another. Being patient, resilient, strategic and creative are all very strong assets for any successful team. Whilst a spider has all of these and more, it is unlikely that a single human will embody all the attributes required in a business, so why not look deeply at your team and assess their strengths (and weaknesses) and notice how they are distributed. Can a perceived weakness be a source of great strength? And do you have a mixture of these attributes in your team?


Second Scenario – Sheep

In nature – Sheep have very set (and well known) characteristics. They spook easily and when one starts running the whole flocks runs with them. This is honed into their natural selection. It is hard to move in a field of sheep without disturbing them. Our very presence puts them on edge, even if they don’t start running.

Simulation – Next time you’re in a sheep field, try to enter slowly. Be silent, observe. Are you able to see them in their natural setting? Then, make your presence known. How quickly do they flee? What does your ‘energy’ bring to the situation? And what is the effect?

Now consider your team in the workplace. It is natural for employees to behave differently when they know they are being watched. The chatter quietens and people focus more. To be a true leader, you need to be able to observe your team in their natural state. Exactly like with the sheep scenario (not that I’m calling your employees sheep!) try to enter the room unnoticed, be silent and observe. What is the working relationship? What is the feel/atmosphere in the room? And, how does that atmosphere change when your ‘energy’ is noticed?


Third Scenario– The Butterfly

In nature – Butterflies are the epitome of transformation. They are able to live and thrive in three difference natural states (caterpillar, pupa and butterfly). Their ability to undergo this metamorphosis takes time, patience, and the correct nurturing environment, but little else in the way of tools. It is a natural process that they don’t need to learn; it is simply inherent in their genes.

Simulation – The same can be said for a well-designed team. As a leader we need to be patient and create a nurturing environment. The team will naturally take itself from ordinary (caterpillar) to outstanding (butterfly) if the correct conditions are present; often without the need for strict guidance through the learning journey. In this sense, it is better for a leader to focus on the workplace environment, making it enjoyable and hospitable, than to micro-manage the specific tasks of each team member. The transformation will take care of itself.


Lessons Learned and the Next Step

The lesson here is that whilst techniques can be learned from a book, developing the skills to use them in the workplace takes practice – or simulation. The most powerful way to conduct a leadership simulation is to take your whole team an experiential leadership day connecting with nature, guided by a professional. There are many organisations now offering this kind of work, and it is safe because it is outdoors.

For example, including horses in leadership training is a great way to get instant feedback. By running workshops on my farm, with the horses, the teams are taken out of their normal environment and the horses provide immediate, but judgement free, feedback. The groups are diverse, both in age, gender, and professional roles, but what they have in common is that they are all leading high-performance teams and are wanting to hone, practice and implement new ways of working in this current climate. The experience with the horses allows these leaders to adapt smoothly to changing realities (as the horse reacts to their behaviour). By learning to adapt in the moment your self-esteem can be boosted, especially in the face of uncertainty. Even leaders who usually navigate change well, can benefit from live feedback and a much-needed confidence boost at this time difficult time. See:  Horses are a great feedback mechanism as they are very sensitive, but you can also get feedback on your abilities yourself with your own pet cat or dog (ensure you are always kind and respectful, not aggressive or hurtful). The reaction will not be quite as useful as they already know you, but they still come without judgement and can be a good way to get you thinking about different approaches.

By using this approach to leadership simulation you can open yourself up to the possibility of transformational learning. Challenging yourself and your team in this way will make you stronger, more resilient, and more confident in an ever-changing business environment.


Rosie Tomkins is founder of the Natural Capital Consultancy and author of ‘N-stinctive’, an inspirational book that introduces an alternative to traditional leadership training by unlocking the power of the natural world to provide strength and confidence to people who are shouldering huge responsibility.

Rosie’s clients include the GB Olympic hockey and England rugby teams, the NHS and multi-national companies in the airline, engineering and pharmaceutical industries.