Political Intelligence

by Don Morley and David Bancroft-Turner

The political animals at large

How can you tell which colleagues are politicking and which are not? Even if you know they are, can you tell if their political efforts are based on self interest or for the benefit of the organisation as a whole? This model provides a simple but powerful illustration that will enable you to recognise the four political animals at large in most organisations – fox, owl, donkey and sheep.

Political animals

This four-animal model, developed back in the 1980s by Simon Baddeley and Kim James, provides a vivid means of differentiating between political movers within organisations.


An implied innocence underlies the sheep approach. Other words that spring to mind might be naive, easily led and loyal. They are the types who say (providing they recognise what is happening in the first place), ‘I have no time for politics’ or, ‘I don’t want to play that game.’ They believe that organisational processes and procedures should always be followed and that only the formal channels exist. They cling to the notion that the best idea or person will always win. They always observe the organisational structure and the levels of authority within it. Many of us start our working life with this viewpoint and some will even maintain it for an entire career.


Words such as stubborn and inept might sum up the donkey character, but it goes deeper than this. We have all encountered the colleague who thinks he’s on the inside track, is fond of mentioning connections to the senior staff and is convinced he plays a smart game. Sadly, this is often an illusion, and as a result donkeys can get used or taken advantage of by other, more ruthless, individuals. They also deny themselves the support and collaboration of team members when it comes to doing the job they are really paid for. This is a bitter pill to swallow for those who pride themselves on thinking they have worked out how to get ahead of others, or the organisation, in pursuit of their personal goals.


Cunning, sly and clever, foxes know their way around. They are really quite adept at negotiating the corridors of power, getting support and being tuned in to the bigger picture. They recognise and take advantage of the weaknesses of others in order to get ahead and further their cause. Unfortunately, it is ‘their cause’ that they invariably put first in their decisions and strategies. The objectives of the organisation tend to be neglected, even ignored when it suits.

In recent years, several major corporate failures have almost certainly been precipitated by extreme fox-like behaviour among senior managers.


Wise and highly observant, the organisational owls are well placed to succeed. They differ from the fox in that ‘succeed’ for them means positive outcomes for both themselves and the organisation. They use their highly developed networking and communication skills to generate support and build alliances. They can take the difficult decisions, but work hard to ensure that the outcomes are not counter-productive. Unlike the foxes, they are overt, and they demonstrate this by listening and disclosing appropriately. They are visible and approachable, yet powerful and focused.

No doubt you can recognise examples of these four ‘animals’ within your own organisation. They all have a place in the four-quadrant Political Intelligence model, which provides the foundation for understanding organisational politics and learning how to build appropriate skills and behaviours for effective performance.