The Lion King is unquestionably a film about leadership, and it portrays almost as many types of leaders as it does animals. Along with the legions of 90’s kids, I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the reboot.
A lot has changed since the original came out in 1994, however, and I’m not just talking about CGI. For one thing, I’ve expanded my professional repertoire from peddling Thin Mint cookies to working real jobs in actual companies. As such, I can’t help but wonder how these characters would function in the everyday workplace.
What would it be like to report to Simba, for example? What about Zazu, Mufasa or Scar? How would each of their management styles materialize if we swapped the water hole for the water cooler? What would we be able to learn from them?
As self-proclaimed pop culture enthusiasts, my colleagues and I decided to explore these questions by imagining seven different Lion King leaders transplanted from the African savannah to the office. We’ve identified their distinctive values, philosophy and management styles, as well as areas for improvement. We’ve also made a nifty little quiz for you to determine which Lion King character best resembles your management style!
Jump to a Character:
Mufasa — The Transparent Traditionalist
Mufasa is hands down one of the strongest leaders ever conceived by Disney. A unique combination of charismatic and compassionate, Mufasa is wholly committed to his role as leader.
Although, as a monarch, it’s safe to presume he inherited his position, Mufasa demonstrates that he’s actually pretty damn good at his job. Just look at the abundant resources the Pride Lands enjoyed during his tenure, thanks to Mufasa’s effective management.
Although the original version of The Lion King never explicitly comes out and commends Mufasa for his business acumen, it does depict a contrasting Pride Lands under Scar, which is barren and completely depleted of the resources Mufasa worked so hard to protect.
This demonstrates a solid business savvy and suggests that, in the real world, Mufasa would not only be capable of effectively managing people, but running a company as well.
“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Mufasa would be the type of manager who believes that everyone on his team has a role to play and something to contribute, no matter how junior they are. On the flip side, he wouldn’t discriminate against older workers, believing they are past their prime and have nothing of value to offer.
Mufasa’s appreciation for diversity and inclusion would likely have a positive impact on organization: research has shown that inclusive companies have a 2.3x higher cash flow per employee over a three year period than their less inclusive competitors.
Mufasa’s emphasis on inclusivity would also make candidates flock to his organization: according to Glassdoor, a full two-thirds of active job seekers want to join an inclusive team. Candidates looking to work for Mufasa might even use one of Venngage’s professionally-designed resume templates to make their resume stand out from the pile.
With job seekers vying to join him, Mufasa would be able to pick and choose the best and the brightest to fill any vacancies, thus propelling further success of his organization.
We already know that Mufasa in the original version of The Lion King views leadership as a serious responsibility. Our first hint that the reboot Mufasa will have the same mindset — and management style — as his 90’s counterpart is evident in his narration of the second official trailer released by Disney back in April:
While others search for what they can take, a true king searches for what he can give.
Mufasa doesn’t view his leadership role as an opportunity to exercise power, but as a deep responsibility to nurture, motivate and inspire others.
Although he has high standards, Mufasa is genuinely caring and empathetic towards his team members. He doesn’t view his reports as underlings he can boss around, but as valuable individuals who have something meaningful to contribute.
Martin Zwilling, CEO and founder of Startup Professionals, says:
One of your most important culture responsibilities is making your employees feel truly valued on a regular basis despite internal fears and conflicting feedback from their peers. Feelings are known to statistically produce the biggest impact on future performance, as well as morale.
Mufasa is the type of leader who cares about you, believes in you, and who you naturally just want to follow.
As a manager, Mufasa would likely heed the words of entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk:
Understand that you work for your employees, they don’t work for you.
Mufasa would be the type of manager people yearn to work for — according to data compiled by Pepperdine University, only 35% of Americans would prefer a pay raise over a better boss.
Mufasa’s Management Style
Because Mufasa trusts and respects his reports, he would likely to give them the autonomy they need to truly excel in their jobs. This would not only increase productivity but help prevent plummeting morale, as caused by micromanagement. In a 2014 study, University of Pennsylvania professor Alexandra Michel concluded that employees work harder and better when they are given autonomy over their jobs.
However, just because he wouldn’t be constantly breathing down your neck, doesn’t mean Mufasa would be a hands-off manager. On the contrary, he would be heavily invested in his team members, and likely make himself available for mentorship opportunities.
Mufasa also wouldn’t be afraid to reprimand reports who “deliberately disobey” him. While some managers are so averse to conflict that they wind up enabling problematic behavior among their team members, Mufasa wouldn’t likely shy away from addressing his reports who are falling flat, like he did with Simba after his ill-advised trip to the elephant graveyard.
Mufasa is also a straight shooter who appreciates transparency. His direct management style means you would always know where you stood with him. If Mufasa had concerns about your performance, for example, he would not only tell you, but give you the opportunity to improve. As he was during his reign as monarch, Mufasa the Manager would be just and fair.
Mufasa wouldn’t hesitate to recognize outstanding employees ever. In fact, we’d like to think he’d use Venngage to create employee recognition certificates, because that’s just the type of boss he is.
Mufasa is definitely old school and places a value on tradition.
This might make him reluctant to adopt more modern workplace improvements such as flex hours, remote working, a casual dress code or dog-friendly office. This isn’t necessarily a shortcoming, but it would be important that Mufasa’s reports are comfortable in a more formal workplace (you’d definitely need to bust out the suit and tie for this boss).
Mufasa also values experience and loyalty, which means he might promote or delegate important tasks to people who have been on his team longer, even if they aren’t the most capable of driving results.
More junior employees might need to “pay their dues” with less meaningful work before they’re taken seriously, even if they have better ideas or stronger skills than someone more senior. This could be one area where Mufasa’s old-school management style creates conflicts among the team.
Mufasa’s biggest shortcoming, however, would be his failure to properly address toxic employees who are detrimental to his organization. Neglecting to banish Scar, for instance — or at the very least, put him on a Performance Improvement Plan — could signal that, as a manager, Mufasa would similarly underestimate toxic employees who are dragging down the rest of the team.
According to international recruitment firm Robert Half: “A bad attitude can be more damaging than poor performance.”
Lessons from Mufasa
- Like Mufasa, trust in your team members, but not so much that you fail to identify problematic employees.
- Make everyone feel like they have an important role on your team, no matter how small.
- Be a just and fair leader.
Simba — The Visionary Leader
When we first meet Simba, he is far from the indomitable leader we see emerging atop of Pride Rock at the end of the film. As a cub, Simba yearns for the day when he will come of age and take over from his father Mufasa.
This in itself would be harmless, if he weren’t trying to get a jump start by bossing around Mufasa’s majordomo, Zazu. When Zazu refuses to follow his commands, Simba attempts the first and only actual termination portrayed in The Lion King (while neglecting to follow any HR process, no less).
Although his brattiness can be attributed to immaturity, young Simba initially comes across as the entitled son of a CEO, bossing around his father’s employees and trying to get them canned when they don’t do what he says.
Simba believes he should be respected—even obeyed—not on the strength of his leadership skills, expertise or successful track record (none of which exist at this point), but rather due to his family connections. His attitude is obnoxiously similar to someone else we know:
Even with his irksome attitude, however, we’re able to witness the occasional glimmer of the leader Simba will one day become.
For example, his desire to abolish arranged marriage in the Pride Lands as a cub demonstrates a progressive mindset. His willingness to shake up his diet and swap antelope for insects also indicates that he’d be open to new ideas and suggestions from his teammates.
Although Simba experiences an incredible transformation on his hero’s journey following the tragic death of Mufasa, he remains forward thinking and open minded from the time he’s a little furball to a roaring leader.
Simba would be the type of manager who encourages fresh thinking among his team members. He would foster an innovative and creative company culture, where people aren’t afraid to speak up and share their ideas.
He wouldn’t be afraid to try new things, even if they were outside of his comfort zone. This means that Simba’s team would likely have a lot of exciting new projects on the go, all while working together to execute his broader vision.
Simba would also be extremely committed to professional growth. He would be the type of manager who always works on learning, growing and improving — and would inspire his teammates to do the same.
Simba would also recognize his mistakes and hold himself accountable, which would help quash negative feelings about him among his team.
According to a study conducted by Alison Wood Brooks and her doctoral students at Harvard Business School, leaders who admit failure diminish feelings of envy. Brooks says:
If you’re highly successful, your achievements are obvious. It’s more novel and inspiring for others to learn about your mistakes.
Simba has taken to heart his father’s lessons on inclusivity and tolerance, as evident by his close friendship with Timon and Pumbaa (who other lions might look down on — or even try to eat!) As a manager, he would value everyone on his team, no matter how junior. He would also be accessible and open to hearing questions and concerns.
Simba’s Management Style
Just like his father, Simba believes everyone has a part to play. As a manager, he would go out of his way to ensure every employee feels appreciated and valued. As a result, he would inspire devotion and loyalty among his team. Just look at Timon and Pumbaa, who were literally willing to sacrifice themselves to distract the hyenas and further Simba’s cause towards the end of the original film (fortunately they survived!)
Simba is initially cocky and believes he should be respected because of his who his father is. Like Scar, he demands respect rather than earning it. Fortunately, Simba undergoes a major attitude adjustment during the film and ultimately emerges as an awe-inspiring leader who restores the Pride Lands to their former glory.
However, because Simba is initially reluctant to challenge his uncle Scar and wants others to deal with it instead, this could mean that as a manager, Simba may be singularly focused on himself and reluctant to help out other departments.
He also has difficulty accepting past mistakes and learning on, although—with a nudge from Rafiki—he eventually is able to overcome this tendency.
Lessons from Simba
- Hold yourself to high standards — always be growing, learning, improving, and you will inspire others to do the same.
- No one cares who your father is. Respect needs to be earned.
- Don’t let mistakes define you. Learn, grow and keep moving.
Rafiki — The Growth-Minded Mentor
Change is good.
Rafiki embraces change, which means, as a manager, he would likely be open to exploring new ideas.
Because he’s focused on the big picture, Rafiki’s reports likely wouldn’t be burdened with unnecessarily complicated tasks or processes, like adding cover sheets to your TPS reports. I’m looking at you, Bill Lumbergh.
Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.
Where Rafiki really differentiates himself as a leader is his approach to past mistakes and failure, which he acknowledges as learning opportunities. Rafiki embodies a growth mindset and believes in constantly testing new ideas. If something doesn’t work, he moves on and tries something else, which would inspire his team to do the same.
As Ellen DeGeneres says: “It’s failure that gives you the proper perspective on success.”
Rafiki’s Management Style
Rafiki as a manager would challenge his team members to grow professionally, step out of their comfort zones and produce their very best work.
He likely wouldn’t be a great fit for people who just want to put in the hours and clock out at 5. He would be incredibly demanding, due to the high expectations he has for his team members.
Rafiki is empathetic and understanding, but has a low tolerance for excuses. This means he would likely take a direct, transparent, no-nonsense approach to management.
Rafiki isn’t afraid to be unconventional (such as whacking Simba on the head to demonstrate that the past can, in fact, hurt), which means he probably wouldn’t be suited for a more traditional workplace. This in itself isn’t a shortcoming, of course, but it’s easy to see Rafiki being stifled by a stringent corporate culture, and subsequently not performing to the best of his abilities as a manager.
Also, that stick is a lawsuit waiting to happen…
Because more traditional higher ups may feel threatened by Rafiki thinking outside the box and shaking up the status quo, this could leave him vulnerable to undermining or outright sabotage.
In order for Rafiki to truly shine as a leader, he would need to find a strong cultural fit with a company which values his progressive thinking, rather than viewing it as a liability.
Lessons from Rafiki
- Sometimes, people need to discover things for themselves. Rafiki would not have been effectively able to persuade Simba to return home to challenge Scar if he had attempted to pressure or manipulate him. Instead, Rafiki trusted that if he guided Simba, he would eventually uncover the right answer for himself.
- Don’t be terrified of failure. Rethink of it as a learning opportunity that’s actually necessary for future success.
Scar — The Ineffective Autocrat
As The Lion King’s primary villain, it’s no surprise that Scar would be an equally terrible boss.
Scar is solely obsessed with his own professional ambitions, and gaining as much power as humanly possible. Not only does he openly vocalize his disdain for his employees, he views them as disposable pawns.
Scar believes that any action is justifiable, so long as it furthers his cause. He also prefers undermining, conniving and backstabbing to progress in his career, rather than working hard and building meaningful relationships.
Because he believes his species is superior, he would likely demonstrate a considerable amount of bias with regards to hiring and promotion.
Scar’s Management Style
Although Scar strives to be the ultimate authority figure, he is surprisingly hands off with regards to the day to day management of the Pride Lands.
His management style would be similarly laissez-faire, leaving the reports in his favor to essentially run rampant. He doesn’t seem to care about what they do on a daily basis, so long as they show him the respect he believes he deserves.
While micromanagers can be detrimental to their employees and organization, an absentee manager is arguably even worse. Scott Gregory writes in Harvard Business Review:
Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management, and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams.
Scar’s absentee tendencies are likely caused by abysmal work ethic. He wants the perks of power, without any of the responsibility.
If his treatment of the hyenas is any indication, Scar would regard his team members as dispensable, with nothing of value to contribute. He would also openly complain about them…in their presence.
Subsequently, Scar’s reports would become disengaged and disgruntled, and turn on him at the nearest opportunity. Remember, Scar actually survives the fall off Pride Rock, and meets his unfortunate end at the hands of the hyenas, who he had previously berated.
Scar is also incapable of speaking up and articulating his concerns in a productive way. For example, he makes passive aggressive comments towards Mufasa while plotting his demise, rather than being direct about his frustration over the apparent lack of growth opportunities on Pride Rock.
Lessons from Scar
- Don’t treat your team members as dispensable; it will cause their morale and engagement levels to plummet.
- While no one wants to work for a micromanager, it’s also not good to be completely hands off and fail to effectively manage your reports.
Zazu — The Well-Meaning Micromanager
Out of all the Lion King characters, Zazu probably poses the greatest risk of becoming a micromanager. As Mufasa’s long-time majordomo, he’s certainly loyal—not to mention dependable and hardworking—but his insecurity and rigid adherence to the rules means he could be prone to excessively supervising and scolding his reports, causing the inevitable demise of their productivity and morale.
Zazu clearly values dedication and work ethic, two qualities he possesses in spades. As a manager, he would be wholly committed to his organization—it’s not difficult to imagine Zazu being the first employee to arrive on a Monday and the last one to leave on a Friday.
He may even take a cue from Dwight Schrute by staying late to water the office plants every day.
Another plus is Zazu has organization down pat. We can easily picture him using Venngage’s performance review templates to regularly communicate with his team.
Zazu also has integrity, and would genuinely care for his team members, even as he drives them out the door.
Zazu believes in following the law to the letter, which could make it a challenge for him to be flexible as a manager. His commitment to the rulebook isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but combined with his risk aversion, Zazu could inadvertently wind up stifling creative thinking among his team.
He also believes in hierarchy, which means that he’d be unlikely to go to bat for one of his reports against a superior—at least not openly. Remember, for all his flaws, Zazu still supports Simba in his attempt to topple Scar. During the battle, he even assists Timon and Pumbaa in chasing off a horde of hyenas.
Though it isn’t really acknowledged, this is a huge breakthrough for Zazu, who is frequently characterized by his obedience and playing by the rules. As a manager, Zazu might occasionally surprise his team members by stepping out of his comfort zone and supporting them in ways they weren’t expecting.
Zazu’s Management Style
Zazu’s micromanaging wouldn’t stem from a place of animosity, but rather insecurity.
Sam Dogen, author of the blog Financial Samurai, explains that micromanaging tendencies typically emerge when a boss is “fundamentally insecure.” He or she could also be neurotic (which describes Zazu to a tee) or a high performer who refuses to acknowledge that other people may work differently.
Whatever the reason, the results would be the same. Chris Leitch at Career Addict writes:
Simply put, micromanaging will destroy manager/employee relationships. Monitoring everything they do, walking them through every element of their job, and redoing their work because it just wasn’t done the way the micromanager would, slowly but surely guides employees toward the door.
As a micromanager, Zazu would likely cause his team members to disengage—or become emotionally detached—from their work. This could make it difficult for Zazu to retain employees: according to Gallup, 56% of somewhat disengaged and 73% of actively disengaged employees are actively looking for a new job.
Lessons from Zazu
- Trust in your own abilities, and others will too.
- Be on the lookout for micromanaging tendencies, which can cause disengagement among your team and decimate their productivity and morale.
Pumbaa — The Strategic Silo Buster
As Timon’s trusty sidekick, Pumbaa’s primary purpose in The Lion King is to serve up the comic relief. However, he also displays some surprising leadership qualities which would be very desirable in a manager.
When Timon and Pumbaa first meet Simba as a distraught lion cub who just experienced a major trauma, Timon is initially too fearful to help him. Pumbaa, however, overcomes his biases and convinces Timon to take Simba in.
This is partially due to Pumbaa’s empathetic nature; however, he also has the foresight to determine that having an adult lion indebted to the duo could yield some major ROI in the future. Pumbaa turns out to be right, as Simba eventually saves them from becoming Nala’s dinner.
As a manager, Pumbaa would likely foster a collaborative environment, with an emphasis on teamwork and inclusion. His reports wouldn’t work in silos, as he would build positive relationships across multiple departments.
Pumbaa defines his personal philosophy as “Hakuna matata”—no worries. In the workplace, his upbeat demeanor would likely have a positive impact on his team by helping to reduce stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress, an estimated 1 million workers are absent every day in the United States due to stress. Additionally, the combination of healthcare and missed work days due to stress is estimated to cost U.S. employers approximately $300 billion a year.
Pumbaa’s Management Style
Pumbaa’s emphasis on collaboration would likely mean more harmony across departments, as well as his individual team members. He would be the type of manager to actively seek input and feedback from his reports, with a leadership style that is almost democratic in nature.
Because Pumbaa easily overcomes biases, he would also likely attract talent from a diverse pool of candidates. This means there would be more creativity and innovation, due to the wider range of experiences, perspectives and insights his team members would bring to the table.
Pumbaa may struggle to discipline his team members who are underperforming, as his jovial nature could make him reluctant to engage in any type of workplace conflict.
He would also need to be mindful that the line between boss and buddy isn’t breached, which could lead to his reports not taking him seriously or respecting his authority.
Lessons from Pumbaa
- Don’t be afraid to find team members who come from a different professional/educational/social/economic background than you; overcome your biases like Pumbaa and think of the long term benefits that diverse thinking can bring to your team.
Sarabi — The Employee Advocate
Sarabi is another minor character who displays some commendable leadership skills throughout the film. After the tragic death of her husband Mufasa, Sarabi continues to serve as the leader of the female lions in the Pride Lands while Scar descends the kingdom into darkness.
Although still grieving for Mufasa (and her son Simba, who she presumes is dead as well), Sarabi demonstrates incredible strength and courage in standing up to Scar when he challenges her team members’ productivity.
Sarabi places tremendous value on her teammates and is willing to advocate on their behalf, even at great personal risk to herself. She is also unafraid to call out toxic employees, no matter how senior they are.
Although we don’t get to see much of Sarabi in The Lion King, we can guess from the way she stands up to Scar that she has a huge concern for the wellbeing of her team members. She isn’t afraid to go to bat for someone or speak up if they are being treated unfairly.
Sarabi’s Management Style
Sarabi isn’t afraid to call it like it is, which means she would likely be an open, direct and honest manager. It’s clear that the other lionesses are loyal to her and stand by her side throughout the film; they don’t follow her because she’s their “boss”, but because they respect and admire her.
As a manager, she would care for every individual team member. Her reports would subsequently feel safe coming to her with their questions or concerns. She would have an open door office policy.
Although she is certainly commendable for standing up for her team, Sarabi may have been more effective speaking to Scar in private, rather than calling him out in front of the entire kingdom and publicly wounding his ego.
In an office setting, this might mean she isn’t mindful of diplomacy. She likely wouldn’t be good at office politics, which could leave her and her team vulnerable to vindictive CEOs.
Lessons from Sarabi
Advocate for your employees and genuinely care for their well being to inspire devotion like Sarabi.
The Lion King remake roars into theatres on July 18, 2019. Although it will likely differ in some ways from the original, I’m certain it will similarly portray several different leadership and management styles for us to learn from. It may even give us a few ideas about how we can become better leaders ourselves.
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Lion King Management Styles infographic designed by Michelle Lee