Herd Mentality: What We Can Learn About Leadership From Ancient Americans

In the days before they had horses and rifles, ancient Americans successfully hunted the enormous and dangerous American Bison in a surprising way.  By taking advantage of its herd mentality, a few bold warriors were able to manipulate the actions of hundreds of buffalo.   As social animals ourselves, we can learn a lot from their tactics to help make us better leaders today.

Herd Mentality

The Thing About the Buffalo

There are three key things about the buffalo (American Bison) that made them vulnerable to Native American hunters.

  • Their eyes are on the sides of their heads.
  • Their heads are low to the ground.
  • They have a strong herd instinct.

These traits combine to mean that they can’t see very well ahead or behind, and they tend to rely on the actions of others nearest to them as a cue for what they should do.  To take advantage of these facts, plains Indians such as the Blackfoot, Cree, Snake, and Crow, used a technique called a Buffalo Jump when they hunted. 

To start the hunt, a fleet-footed young warrior would put on a buffalo disguise and sneak to the front of the herd.  There, this “buffalo runner” would then start making the sounds of a distressed calf, causing unease in the herd and luring them toward him.

Then more warriors, dressed and howling like wolves, would suddenly pop up on the flanks and rear of the herd.  Their surprise appearance instilled a sense of fear, and generated more forward movement. 

Finally, the buffalo runner in front would jump up and take off at a sprint.  Alarmed, the nearest buffalo would begin running too.

Herd Mentality - Buffalo HerdWith heads low and eyes to the sides, only a few buffalo had seen the disguised buffalo runner or the fake warrior wolves.  But they all had heard the strange noises and were alarmed.  All they could see was what the buffalo around them were doing, and many were beginning to run.  Spreading rapidly like a natural chain reaction, buffalo imitated buffalo until the whole herd was suddenly stampeding.

Over the Edge

Most buffalo did not know why they were running, or where they were going. Each assumed the others knew what was going on, and the safest thing to do was to go along with the herd.

With many dozens of panicked animals following hard on his heels, the buffalo runner led the leaders straight to the edge of a cliff.  At the last moment, he would jump into a safe hiding place as the herd went thundering by. 

In the words of one person reputed to have witnessed such a hunt:

“In this way it was possible to decoy a herd toward a precipice,
and cause it to plunge over en masse, the leaders being thrust over by their followers and all the rest following of their own free will.”
– W.T. Hornaday in Smithsonian Report, 1887

Herd Mentality Head-Smashed-In_Buffalo_Jump-27527-2
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, southern Alberta (Public Domain)

Over the next several days, the tribe would gather to harvest the results of the hunt.  Archeologists have determined that some buffalo jumps had been in use for over five thousand years, the practice only fading out with the arrival of horses and rifles. 

We may chuckle at the gullibility of the buffalo, but I’m not sure people are all that different. 

Who’s Herding Who?

As Professor of Psychology Robert Cialdini observed in his excellent book Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion:

In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct. - Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. Click To Tweet

Cialdini observes that the same factors which make the buffalo so susceptible can have the same impact on us.  

Head down and focused on our little part of the world, we can be unaware of what is going on around us.  When a new situation arises that causes uncertainty, the easiest thing to do is to look to the other members of our herd and see what they are doing. Most of us then follow suit.

We look for social proof to guide our actions.  The problem is that social proof isn’t really proof at all, and the ancient hunters of the plains have shown us how dangerous it can be to think that it is.

If we would be leaders, these are the times when it is most vital that we don’t do what the buffalo do.  We have to defy the herd mentality to reflexively run.  Instead, we should pause.  We should raise our heads up and use our forward-facing eyes to look around.  We should ask questions.

  • Why is everybody running?
  • Are those really wolves?
  • Who benefits from our fear?
  • Where are we going?
  • What will that lead to?
  • Is that a good idea?

Herd Mentality – The Takeaway

From financial markets, to commerce, to politics, the world is full of buffalo runners trying to take advantage of our own herd mentality.   Like the buffalo, it can quickly get us into trouble if we rely only on social cues to show us the direction we should go (I’m looking at you, social media!)

Our defense against them is to raise our heads above the herd and look around.  We have to make our own assessment based on verifiable fact.  We have to do our own thinking.  And then we can set our own mark so that others may follow.  Often, that might mean doing something the rest of the herd is not.

In the end, it’s not really leading if all we’re doing is imitating those around us so that others will imitate us.

All that does is get us all to the edge of the cliff more quickly.

Herd animal or leader?  The choice is up to us.

Lead On!


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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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