When executives throw themselves in with the wolves

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Ernstbrunn (Austria) (AFP)

"When they lick your face, keep your mouth closed. They have long tongues," Kurt Kotrschal tells the group before they enter the wolf enclosure, soliciting a few nervous chuckles.

But for the participants in this unusual executive coaching course in Austria, there are more worrying parts of the animals' anatomy. Their teeth, for example.

Eyeing the group with curiosity -- or is it hunger? -- are Nanuk and Una, two timber wolves reaching easily to waist height. Everything about them is big, from their paws to their heads to their mouths.

"I'm a bit apprehensive," confides one participant.

Like every time, the encounter between the furry predators and the half-dozen humans passes off peacefully. The people pet the wolves -- "Not the head," warn the keepers -- and get sniffed back in return.

The location is the Wolf Science Center, a unique institution in Ernstbrunn north of Vienna that compares and contrasts the behaviour and smartness of wolves and dogs, and also hosts training courses like this.

Co-founded by Kotrschal, the centre is home to 17 timber wolves from North America, Russia and Europe hand-reared from the age of 10 days to get them used to humans -- although tame they are not.

Also here, enthusiastically bounding around with wagging tails in separate enclosures, are 13 dogs from animal shelters brought up the same way.

- What big paws you have -

But today it's about teaching a different kind of mammal with a big bite -- business executives and senior managers -- to learn from these awe-inspiring animals.

The aim is to give people an exploration of what it means to develop "leadership presence", to develop one's "animal self" and to "communicate on a primal level", said Ian McGarry, co-creator of the "Talking with Wolves" programme.

"It doesn't matter who you are -- you can be the CEO of an organisation, you could be the janitor. The wolf really doesn't care," McGarry, a British psychologist, told AFP.

"So when you walk into the wolf enclosure your position, your status, who you are in your own business world is completely irrelevant," the 50-year-old said.

He's right of course.

Nanuk and Una, a bit docile with the summer heat, couldn't give a hoot as they slink up and check out the intruders -- who include an AFP reporter and a camerawoman -- in their large, leafy pen.

And although everyone is quite safe, being in close quarters with a real-life wolf is not for the faint-hearted. The participants relax, but not entirely.

"Put out your hand," instructs one of the keepers. The wolves then obediently slap their massive paws -- they are considerably bigger than a dog's -- onto the waiting palms.

- 'Sensing your body' -

The one-day course, which costs 650 euros ($760) per person, also involves group discussion sessions -- people only -- on "being present", as well as seeing and listening exercises before another encounter with three livelier adolescent wolves.

"Take your inner vision onto sensing your body, listen to the sounds that aren't there," McGarry instructs the participants standing in a semi-circle, their arms stretched back.

Bernhard, an international project manager, is impressed, calling the course "totally great".

"At least 50 percent of the success of a project depends on the human factor, and that is exactly what we see here," he told AFP.

"When you are going into managing a project you have to be able to read how people are behaving before they talk. Today I sharpened my senses again."

Shirley Smith, a former human resources manager and now a "coach" based in Vienna, said that she overcame her fears -- she is scared of dogs -- to enjoy a "very special" experience.

"The main thing I learned from this workshop is that I'm much stronger than I realised before," she told AFP.

"I felt I was meeting a very powerful creature eye to eye. And if the wolf saw me like that then I recognise that when I want to be, I too can be incredibly powerful."