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4 minute read

Rane Willerslev: “The hunter-gatherer societies could hold the key to solving some of our biggest problems today”

Agility, self-management, flat hierarchies and time for innovation – all words that describe the way we organised ourselves in the Stone Age. And according to Rane Willerslev, anthropologist, adventurer and director of the National Museum of Denmark, there is a lot to learn for managers and companies today.

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key takeaways

While studying the hunter-gatherer cultures of Siberia, Rane Willerslev experienced an epiphany. One that would define his continuous journey as a person and CEO.


Rane Willerslev’s studies on hunter-gatherer societies came with a few discoveries that leaders today can utilise to heighten agility, innovation and help alleviate some of our biggest problems.


Modern businesses can utilise the palaeolithic ways by engaging in experimental thought circles where creativity can unfold, and innovation can thrive.

A game-changing experience

“Let me be clear; I do not base my decision-making entirely on this spiritual experience. And I do not live in a parallel world of shadowy figures, like the shaman. But I am reminded that if we are open to insights, we can gain access to a different dimension,” says Rane Willerslev, anthropologist, explorer and director of the National Museum of Denmark, about his game-changing experience in the wild outskirts of Siberia.

In the Deloitte’s Bizzpod with Christian Jensby, CEO of Deloitte Denmark, he shares how his experiences with the hunter-gatherer culture have shaped his path as a CEO and how it taught him things that he believes could help solve some of our biggest problems today. Things such as agile leadership, innovation and animism.

The mother and the deer

Rane Willerslev’s story takes us back to the 1990s when was studying the hunter-gatherer societies of Siberia. Here, he experienced an epiphany:

“We were taken to the far away countryside to a simplistic hut with plastic bags as windows, permafrost in the floor and nothing to eat but a moose. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of not building a meat rack. Therefore, the moose got eaten by wildlife, causing us to nearly starve to death.”

“In all my misery, I had a vision of a mother and her child. A vision that somehow translated into the real world because later that day, I encountered a deer mother with its child fawn.”

As if a parallel between the spiritual and physical world had been drawn, he found an answer to his starvation:

“This brought me to open my eyes to animism – the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. It is not a religion and there are no rules or codes of conduct. Rather, it is a belief and a reminder that there are techniques that you can utilise to gain access to other dimensions.”

Learning from the most innovative and agile leaders

The spiritual experience is not the only takeaway from Rane Willerslev’s journey. Because studying the hunter-gatherer cultures posed a few discoveries that leaders today can learn from:

“What makes the hunter-gatherer society so unique and fantastic is that it is the most egalitarian society ever. There are no differences between rich and poor, and there are no predefined hierarchies. And with the egalitarian society emerges the most agile leadership structure the world has ever seen. One that occurs when needed and disappears when no longer needed.”

“For instance, the leader of a hunt is not appointed by democratic procedures nor by heritage. The leader is appointed spontaneously with the trust that this person has the right knowledge and will share the loot evenly. This also means that the only authority provided to the leader is leading by example.”

He believes that this spontaneous, agile leadership structure is what many businesses dream of – a subtle form of authority that occurs naturally instead of being defined by contracts. A structure which allows innovation on a whole new level.

The palaeolithic egalitarian society was hyper-innovative. They only spent 15-20% of their time on work. The rest of the time they spent on themselves, their family and on innovation. You can see that in our Arctic department where we exhibit the results of their innovative work; ancient wet-suits, reversible hunting mittens and all types of harpoons adapted to various conditions.

Rane Willerslev

Utilising palaeolithic structures in today’s business

So how can we utilise this knowledge on innovation and agile leadership in today’s businesses?

According to Rane Willerslev, it requires a shift of power, from the top to the bottom. And to situate the informal in the hierarchy – not to replace it.

“We have left the industrial age where the hierarchical structures thrived. If we are to overcome some of the urgent problems like climate change, we need innovative solutions. Here, we can draw inspiration from the hunter-gatherer society.”

“While a hierarchical structure has its upsides and is still how we organise our businesses today, it can also be heavy and slow in innovation. To innovate, we need to experiment. The idea is to create informal rooms where the egalitarian norms can live – and where the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ will unfold creativity.”

“In this process, we need to recognise that the outcome of this should not be linked to profit. Profit would be a bonus, but not a necessity. The main objective is to be in a constant flow of innovation and to create an ‘idea bank’ that you can draw upon.”

While informal spaces are important and will heighten innovation, he also notes the animistic as a source of inspiration. Especially with regards to climate change:

“We must realise that nature is not a resource, we can use at our disposal. I am not saying that we should go back to flint and tinder because we are highly technological. I am saying that the growth paradigm is a giant stop block for a new relation to nature.”

The conversation (in Danish) between Rane Willerslev and Christian Jensby is available on Apple PodcastsSpotify or on the podcast app of your choice.