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Battlefield HR-Watership Down: What Rabbits Can Teach Organizations about Followership and Leadership

Battlefield HR-Watership Down: What Rabbits Can Teach Organizations about Followership and Leadership

One of the greatest book classics of all time is the bestselling novel ‘Watership Down”, a tale by author Richard Adams, which is actually a book based on stories he told his daughters while they went on trips. But, the novel had the unintended consequence of teaching us about Transformational Leadership, Dark Leadership and Exemplary Followership.

The story takes place in Great Britain through rolling farmland, meadows and woods bordered on the northeast by the town of Overton, in the southeast by the town of Whitchurch, in the northwest by the town of Kingsclere and on the southwest by the village of Newtown.  The story if you are not familiar with it, starts off in Sandleford Warren, home to two brother rabbits, Hazel and Fiver.


Fiver is sort of a smallish clairvoyant rabbit who urges his brother to take him to see the Chief Rabbit about a great danger facing the warren.  The warning is ignored and Hazel and Fiver persuade a group of other rabbits to leave Sandleford Warren with them. Later the warnings bear out as the warren is destroyed and its inhabitants killed by developers.

Their arduous journey takes the band of rabbits to a hilltop called Watership Down, where they settle in and Hazel eventually being named Chief Rabbit by the group.  Faced with certain extinction because there are no female rabbits, a daring raid is mounted on a nearby farm to free some domesticated rabbits.  In an effort to save the raiding party, Hazel is seriously wounded by the farmer. At the same time, another expedition from Watership Down travels to another warren called Efrata led by a large battle scarred tyrant named General Woundwort. The intent was to obtain permission to persuade some female rabbits to join them. Instead, the members of the expedition are taken prisoner, by General Woundwort, enslaved, but later escape.

Hazel plans a daring raid to free several female rabbits from Efrata. One of his trusted rabbits, the former


senior officer in the Sandleford Warren Army, Bigwig, goes undercover and becomes a Efratan officer after impressing the Efratan leadership with his size, strength and experience. When the time is right, Bigwig leads a daring escape with several members of the Efrata Warren and links up with Hazel and his expedition, while eluding a hotly pursuing General Woundwort and his forces.

Later when an enraged General Woundwort leads an expedition of revenge to destroy Watership Down and recapture the female rabbits, Bigwig distinguishes himself in the defense of Watership Down, holding out against all odds, while Hazel completes s a mission to unleash a special secret weapon that ultimately saves the warren and routs the enemy. Let’s take a look at three of the main characters of the book, Hazel, Bigwig and General Woundwort. I thought about adding Fiver, a small rabbit who is also a major character, but I won’t say anything about him, I encourage you to read the book to draw your own conclusions about the type of follower he is!

Hazel is a kind and wise rabbit who understands his limitations. He seeks only those things that will benefit the warren.  Hazel seeks advice and uses persuasion and kindness while listening to the input of the other members of the warren. He demonstrates respect for all, to include other creatures and seeks to build relationships through collaboration.

General Woundwort

Hazel seeks win-win outcomes, even with his enemies like Woundwort. He demonstrates a strong moral foundation and seeks to help his fellow rabbits maximize their potential for the overall benefit of themselves and the warren.  He demonstrated moral courage to leave his home of Sandleford to lead an expedition to find a new home, even though that choice meant he was branded a traitor and rebel by the Sandleford Waren leadership.

Hazel demonstrates all of the Transformational Leadership attributes (Bass & Riggio, 2006).

  1. Idealized Influence or Moral Charisma;  Hazel’s demonstration of this attribute was demonstrated by his strong moral compass, courageous example, his love for his warren members, his humility, his willingness to admit to his faults and when he is wrong.
  2. Inspirational Motivation or Esprit de Corps: This attribute was demonstrated through Hazel’s infectious enthusiasm, daring initiative and vision to make Watership Down a warren where not only the current inhabitants, but future generations of rabbits would love to live.
  3. Intellectual Stimulation: Hazel demonstrated this attribute through his encouraging warren members to be innovative, adopting ideas and suggestions from other warren members to make things better and incorporating their ideas into plans for exploration, defense and missions.

Above all, next to moral charisma, this last attribute goes hand in hand and serves as a major part of the foundation of Transformational Leadership: (4)  Individualized Consideration. This important attribute was illustrated when on several occasions; Hazel risks his life to save other members of the warren in danger.  These actions were not taken for the sake of bravado or self-aggrandizement, but out of his love and concern for his fellow warren members. Hazel made sure all warren members were taken care of, not in a paternalistic way, but as a concerned colleague and friend who did what he could for his warren family.

Bigwig was a senior officer in the army of the Sandleford Warren and was quite influential with that warren’s Chief Rabbit.  Bigwig, after listening to the story of Fiver and Hazel, took up their cause with the Chief Rabbit. After being reprimanded by the Chief Rabbit for wasting his time with Hazel and Fiver, whom the Chief Rabbit regarded as self-important insignificant members of the warren, Bigwig decides there is merit to Fiver’s concerns and joins them on the expedition out of the warren, feeling that the Chief Rabbit was wrong in his arrogant attitude and that his failure to listen would lead to trouble, which it does later. Although Bigwig has far more experience in military matters and survival on the road, he serves as a wise advisor to Hazel.

Bigwig defers to Hazel being the leader, despite Bigwig being a far stronger and experienced leader than any of the rabbits on the expedition. Hazel relies on


Bigwig’s counsel a great deal and Bigwig serves a trainer and mentor for Hazel and the other rabbits on their expedition to Watership Down.  Bigwig is strong, courageous, and has a strong moral foundation and like Hazel, has a focus on the common purpose of the group. Though he is tough and gruff, he is also kind and considerate under his hard exterior. He is innovative, displays initiative and both moral and physical courage. He is actively engaged with Hazel and the warren activities.  Bigwig is also a strong critical thinker; a wonderful example of an Exemplary Follower (Kelley, 1992).

Through his actions, he strongly demonstrates the five Courageous Follower Attributes (Chaleff, 2003).

    1. The Courage to Assume Responsibility.  Bigwig never fails to take on the hard and dangerous jobs and to assist others, not worrying about whose job it is or whether he will receive any credit for it.
    2. The Courage to Challenge. When he thinks Hazel is on the wrong track, Bigwig will speak up and offer alternate solutions to the problem, or if he thinks Hazel is behaving against the common purpose of the warren, he will also challenge Hazel in order to help him get back on track.
    3. The Courage to Participate in Transformation.  Here is one example of the demonstration of this attribute. In rabbit culture, female rabbits dig the holes and burrows in a warren. Since there were no female rabbits, all had to participate and learn how to do it properly. Bigwig, seeing that they had no choice if they wanted to be safe from enemies and sheltered from the elements, was the first to follow Hazel’s example and began digging. This was a new paradigm shift for the rabbits, but a change that eventually saved their lives in the end.
    4. The Courage to Serve. Bigwig admirably demonstrated this attribute, when he infiltrated Efrata, led the escape and the defense of Watership Down and willingly engaged in personal combat against General Woundwort, knowing that if any of the other rabbit defenders had attempted to do so, they certainly would have been killed.
    5. The Courage to Take Moral Action/The Courage to Leave. When Bigwig, could have maintained his high position in Sandleford Warren, and when he could have left a tortured prisoner rabbit who was doomed to die for trying to escape Efrata, Bigwig willingly left Sandleford Warren with Hazel and the others, and although taking the prisoner rabbit on the escape was adding incredible risk to his breakout plan, he did the right thing and took him with the other escapees.

This finally brings us to the last character.  Some of you know I have previously written about Dark Leaders and their attributes. A perfect example of the Dark Leader is exemplified in General Woundwort, the Chief Rabbit of the Efrata Warren. Woundwort certainly had his issues.  Woundwort was the largest of a litter of five rabbits.  As a young rabbit, his home was destroyed by an enraged farmer, his siblings killed and his mother wounded by a shotgun blast.  Escaping, with his mother, Woundwort witnessed his mother killed by a weasel before he fled in terror.  A kindly schoolmaster found the young frightened rabbit and took him in. After nearly killing the schoolmaster’s cat, Woundwort escaped from his hutch and vowed to never let anything like that happen to him again. He founded Efrata and made it impregnable against all potential enemies with fortress like burrows, an elaborate warning system and a regimented inhabitant routine.

General Woundwort established a hard and tyrannical rule where in his view all of the rabbits would be safe from his enemies. This evil rabbit displays no kindness, or compassion, only perpetual rage and a burring desire for power, control and domination. He was proud of his strength and power and was a fierce fighter with no patience for weaklings. Rabbits, who sought to escape, were severely punished or even killed as an example to the others. His soldiers and police were like himself and enjoyed immense privileges over the other Efratan inhabitants. These minions rigorously enforced the harsh disciplined existence. Woundwort prided himself on his prowess in battle against his enemies and was always spoiling for a good fight regardless of the costs involved. He shared power only when his followers were strictly obedient to his orders. Woundwort’s fierceness and bravery in battle and the granting of lavish material rewards; inspired fierce loyalty among his soldiers and police.

However, it was a miserable existence for the majority of the inhabitants who lived in constant fear of informants and punishment for speaking out or attempting to leave. Woundwort felt he was the font of all wisdom and knowledge in Efrata and any suggestion or criticism to his decisions was viewed as treason at worst or disloyalty at best. Woundwort was incredibly narcissistic and was in continual fear of losing his grip of power over the rabbits in Efrata, of being thought wrong or of showing any form of weakness in front of others.  His immense ego prevented him from seeing no other solution to working with the rabbits of Watership Down, other than conquest and death of the male rabbits there.  The blame for the subsequent battle and siege which led to the terrible tragic consequences for the Efratan battle group could be laid at the paws of General Woundwort and his Dark Leadership.


Although we as humans don’t live and work in rabbit warrens, the lessons of Watership Down cannot be lost on any of us who are seeking to improve the leadership, followership and organizational climate and culture of our organizations. May we all be like Hazel-Rah as he became to be known, and Bigwig in our efforts to make our workplaces our own versions of a Watership Down.

For your viewing pleasure, I have include the original trailer from the 1978 movie: Watership Down. Enjoy and may Frith always brighten your path and warm you hearts!

Watership Down Trailer


Adams , R. (1972). Watership Down. London: Rex Collings Limited.

Bass, B.M. & Riggio, R.E. (2006). Transformational leadership 2e, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Chaleff, I. (2003). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders, 2e. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Kelley, R.E. (1992). The power of followership. New York: Doubleday

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Colonel (Ret) Terry Fobbs, PhD, Consultant and Facilitator for Gailforce Resources, is an accomplished public speaker, facilitator and media commentator on human resources, leadership, motivational, national security and community issues. With a BS-Zoology, MBA, Masters in-Strategic Studies, PhD- in Organization & Management specializing in Leadership, Terry has earned the respect of his peers, employer and Gailforce clientele. Terry is an ISO 9000 Certified Lead Assessor, a Baldrige Quality Examiner with the Center for Excellence in Education and the Michigan Quality Council and a recipient of the Michigan Quality Council Quality Hero Award. Terry has served as an adjunct instructor in Business Management for the University of Maryland. He is a member of the Academy of Management and serves as a member of the Academy’s Organizational Development and Entrepreneurship committees. Terry plays active consulting and facilitating roles for Gailforce Resources, working with CEO’s, Boards of Directors, Business Owners, Municipalities and Sector Groups to turn their business strategy into execution and their people into valuable business assets.


  1. Terry this is a great story on leadership. I like to read mor and share with my son. I will purchase a copy on Amazon. Thank you!

  2. I Like to dig deeper into this book.

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