Remembering Leadership Lessons From The Geese
Each passing autumn finds me watching for geese. I'm on the lookout for something I saw many years ago. A flock of geese displayed a unique behavior I witnessed from my back yard and haven't seen since.
Perhaps the passing of time has dimmed my memory, but I don't think so. I wrote an article not long after seeing this unusual behavior. In it I described some leadership characteristics that seemed apparent based on what I saw that morning. I'd like to share the essence of those thoughts with you here:
I was puttering around my back yard early Saturday morning when I heard the familiar honking of a gaggle of geese overhead, rising up from the creek just below my house, a favorite spot for them to rest on their autumn journey south. I watched as the familiar V started to take shape, and then was surprised as it disintegrated into what can only be described as a circling, chaotic mass of birds. They emitted an unsettled sqauwking while circling higher in the sky. I watched them continue to swarm and squawk as more geese joined the party. I began to doubt whether they were even geese. After almost ten minutes they suddenly formed three small, haphazard V's and began to head south. Within minutes many more joined them from farther up the creek, the smaller V’s integrated into a large one and I could hear their familiar honking as they disappeared from sight.
I have no idea what the swarming and squawking was all about as I am not an expert on geese behavior or language patterns. Yet I find myself in many organizations that emit those same characteristics. Something out of the ordinary is going on, familiar patterns of behavior are not present and leadership seems to be in short supply. The geese pulled themselves through their apparent chaos and I have every confidence a unique form of goose leadership was present. From where I stood, there seemed to be four leadership characteristics present:
1. Tolerance for ambiguity.
2. Deep sense of purpose.
3. Desired direction.
4. Leadership at many levels.
Tolerance for ambiguity is required by leaders when their changing organization is not what it used to be and not yet what it is supposed to be. Ensuring people stay connected, providing quality communication, maintaining high levels of trust and exhibiting an abundance of patience are all helpful characteristics.
I don’t know enough about geese to clearly understand what their inherent purpose is in the grand scheme of things; it may be as simple as survival or proliferation of the species. I do know that a deep sense of purpose in a changing organization is essential. Leaders must continually clarify the organizations reason for existence in ways that keep people compelled and interested in hanging on through the chaos.
Desired direction is critical for a changing organization. With no apparent path to follow, however vague and speculative it might be, people will not stay engaged. For the geese it was pretty easy, at this time of year north is not the way to go in this part of the world. For changing organizations it is usually not that simple. However, articulating the desired direction for the enterprise is vital.
In the brief time I was able to watch the V's get organized and continue south, I noticed several changes of leadership up front. This does not mean changing organizations need to change their senior executive on a regular basis. It does mean that different people at different levels and roles throughout the organization are capable of leading different parts of the journey. The formal senior leaders must find ways of developing and drawing upon the multitude of leadership resources present everywhere.
I am forever indebted to Dr. Robert McNeish of Baltimore MD who originally authored “Lessons from the Geese” in 1972.
Perhaps you have seen this behavior from geese in the past. It is more likely you have experienced this behavior in your organization at some point. Perhaps you provided some of the necessary leadership that helped everyone find their way through the chaos. If so, well done! If you haven't, I'm sure you will at some point in your career. Now you know what to look for and more importantly, what to do about it.
Keep your head up and ears open as this fall unfolds. What you hear or see might seem unfamiliar at first glance. Be patient and see what unfolds.
Enjoy everything this autumn has to offer.