An unborn rhino foetus removed from its dead and dehorned mother. In this poaching incident a wildlife ranger was also killed. It is not good enough for Vietnamese businessmen to try to disassociate themselves from this killing spree by saying “We don’t do the poaching, we only buy the horn”.
This destruction is carried out to fulfil their personal desire for status, bestowed through their ability to obtain a rare, expensive product – genuine rhino horn. It is common for the wealthy to feel the need to demonstrate their worth by the luxury goods they own, but there is a difference between buying Rolex watches and obtaining illegal wildlife products. The need to demonstrate status goes too far when it results in wiping out an iconic animal and in less than one generation. Just how anxious can these users of rhino horn be for the acceptance of their peers to shut out the devastating consequences of their actions?
Humans are social creatures and we aim to conform to social norms to demonstrate that we are willing to fit in. This in itself is not an excuse to engage in behaviour that is destructive, but often the gap between actions and consequences is too big in time or space for our brain to link the two. The users of rhino horn are not a large group and the consumption is a new ‘fad’, having only started in 2007. These people are considered leaders in Viet Nam, but can we really consider them leadership material?
Many businessmen (and women) are fragile creatures. As someone who has made a living as business coach for over a decade and worked with many executives, I know how fragile their egos can be. When they are struggling with their self-image often they use the ‘badges of status’ such as a corner office, luxury cars and executive programs at international business schools to help them feel on top of their game and demonstrate they are still in the A-team.
As we work together during coaching sessions, they build a stronger inner self-concept. They learn to control their ego rather than the other way around and become less needy of status symbols for reassurance. Ego blurs judgment and doesn’t make for quality long-term relationships, professionally or personally. As ego is corralled, people become more emotionally grounded which gives them the capacity to have more empathy with the people and world around them.
Our experience and intuition tells us that good leaders – true leaders – evolve, in part, into custodians. They start to look at where they can make a positive difference to the world. They begin to consider the consequences of their actions and even the ones they are not directly responsible for.
As the Vietnamese economy grows rapidly local businessmen have emerged with significant wealth. These men want to be seen as leaders, at present mainly in their home country. At some point, as with China, more Vietnamese businessmen will seek a global role. Many of these businessmen are the users of rhino horn driving the current killing spree. Given that not many people can afford genuine rhino horn, much of what is sold to second tier customers is fake. In reality probably less than 20,000 people in a county of 90 million are driving the rhino to extinction in the wild.
Viet Nam, like much of Asia, is in a massive and rapid economic boom period. We all know there is an economic power shift from the West to the East. More of the world will look to the quality of the leaders in these rising nations. Wild rhinos became extinct in Vietnam in 2011; lost on this current generation’s watch. Will the world’s remaining wild rhino be lost on their watch to because they need a status symbol to feel they fit into the business elite?
If this continues all they will turn out to be is another generation of ordinary businessmen who in a decade or two will be forgotten to all but a few family members and friends, if that. But if this small group of influential men work together to influence each other and those around them to stop using rhino horn as a useless detox drink or needless business gift, they will be remembered in a hundred years, and more, from now as the generation of Vietnamese businessmen that chose to stand together to save an iconic animal that has been on the planet for more than 50 million years. This would show quality leadership, true leadership and transformational leadership. They would become the generation of men known as the ‘Rhino Custodians’ – quite a legacy. I hope they choose this path – the world is watching.