Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Geese Know about Leadership

Nothing signals Autumn in New England like the migration of geese south for the winter. The familiar sight of geese (usually of the Canadian variety) in a V formation and the sound of honking is indicative of the season. I believe that this migration may have something to teach us about leadership.

When flying in this V formation, it appears that one goose is the leader, first in the formation. All the other geese flank this apparent “leader goose” on both sides. Why do geese fly like this? From a scientific perspective this leader helps to cut through the air, making the whole gaggle more aerodynamic. Therefore, all the other geese expend less energy while flying.

So at first it appears that geese have it all figured out, the strongest goose will the lead the gaggle. And surely this strong goose was born to be the leader through his strength and size; undoubtedly he (or she) received no training in such a leadership position. Thus one could conclude that the leader goose is born, and not made. If this is true then the geese have answered our question about the origin of leadership skill. However, there is more to this leadership story. It turns out that the leader goose is not always the same.

When the leader goose becomes tired, it falls to the back of the V formation, where it can expend less energy. Another goose then flies up take its place, having more energy saved from being elsewhere in the V formation. So, it turns out that the leadership role in this flying gaggle is shared among several, if not all, of the geese. This begs the question, are all geese born to be leaders or do all geese learn to be leaders?

To frame this in a theoretical sense, one might fit these geese into the three premises of leadership outline by Selznick in Leadership in Administration, 1957. The first “Leadership is a kind of work done to meet the needs of a social situation” is descriptive of what these geese are trying to accomplish in their southward migration. (Leadership 1957) Second, he points to “Leadership is not equivalent to office-holding, high prestige, or authority or decision-making”. (Leadership 1957) Perhaps there is no office that any goose could hold, but the leader of the flying formation isn’t any of this tangible things and the position is shared among other members of the gaggle. And third, “Leadership is dispensable” as for each goose it is, no one goose is the leader every time and perhaps may not be the leader upon landing. (Leadership 1957)

This example of leadership is one of nature and of utility; flying in a formation is necessity as is having several geese share the burden of this physical exertion. But does this avian example translate to humans? Undoubtedly there are several differences between our feathered friends and ourselves, but it did make me think that perhaps this a leadership quality in all of us that if it is necessary, we can all step into a leadership position. Geese are born with the capacity to fly and seemingly, with the capacity to take the lead. Are humans hindered by our ability to think and communicate in a more complicated way? Is all it takes for us to be leaders for us to just do it? - I doubt that any goose thinks much about taking his or her turn.
So I ask you this- do geese know if leaders are born or made?

Photo © NC Wildlife Resources Commission


  1. Nicole, this story made me think of a few things... Because of what I've read about the leadership theories and heard about in our discussions, I think that maybe it takes more than an act of leadership to actually be considered a leader. I am still trying to decide this for myself, so maybe you can tell me what you think? Basically, is a person considered a leader simply because s/he served as a leader in a situation where everyone was taking a turn equally as responsible/accountable? It could be that one of those geese simply did it -served as the top goose- because everyone else was doing it, no one was getting hurt or in trouble for not flying fast enough, no complaints were being made about having to fly with such and such a leader, no higher expectations were being set forth by 'upper-management-geese,' etc.
    If we answer 'yes' to the question above about being considered a leader just by serving as a leader in one situation, then I can potentially see that leadership skills and traits might be inherent to a person from birth. Meaning, that if we are all capable of responding as a leader if a situation presents itself, then we must have some inherent leadership skills that allow us to do this. However, if we answer 'no' to that question, which I'm more inclined to do, then it seems that these geese, like people, learned over time that they can exhibit the traits of the leader by observing other geese, participating in situations where they learned to follow the top goose, then -eventually- serving in that top goose role.
    The big missing piece we obviously can't really compare here are the geese' traits compared to those that may be associated with a leader. I know that is not the point of the story, but it made me think back to the trait theory. It's still a possibility in my mind that certain leaders are successful because they possess particular leadership traits. However, I also agree with Stogdill who in 1948 said that "A person does not become a leader by virtue of the possession of some combination of traits..." (Stogdill 1948). I think a person must be capable of utilizing their traits appropriately and in the right situations in order to actually make the most of their 'combination of traits.' The words, 'utilizing' and 'appropriate situation' are vague because I cannot tell you how a person can best utilize particular leadership traits until a situation arises that calls for a leader, and even then, few of us know the ultimate best way to lead in any given situation.
    Getting back to leadership theory, this post of yours also made me think of Burns' theory of Transformational Leadership (1978) that essentially said change must me a social goal of the leader and must be visible and tangible (Burns 1978). He called 'change' the "test of leadership" which tells me that there is no leader in the flock of geese or in an organization or situation where everyone is simply taking their turn to arrive at the exact same product, outcome, or environment (Burns 1978).
    The geese will not endeavor to change how the migration process works, they will simply take their turn as the top-goose and then go back to their little comfort zone in the back of the formation. That is not a leader to me. A leader endeavors to make improvements, and maybe change is one way to say that. But a leader does not intend to simply fill a role and then go back to a comfort zone when exhausted.
    Thanks for the story...

  2. Alanna- I had a whole other idea for comment, but I thought it would be more fun to respond to yours ;)

    Your near last statement is the one that jumped out at me: "they will simply take their turn as the top-goose and then go back to their little comfort zone in the back of the formation. That is not a leader to me."

    I think back to the Hughes article which discussed leadership as a fixed resource (and talking about increasing a sub-ordinate's amount of the pie without giving up his or her leadership authority), and couple this furthermore as a part of Theory Y, that people can learn do want responsibility.

    I guess the point I'm trying to make, doesn't a good leader know when to quit? Suppose that the tired goose kept on flying and didn't give up the leadership, what would happen? Possible misdirection perhaps?

    We've learned a lot about the delegation of authority, the trust of the subordinates etc. In this case I actually argue that the goose stepping down and entrusting the role to another goose is a sign of strong leadership as opposed to a lack of it ;)

  3. One of the first questions that popped up for me was, could it be possible that one goose is the inherent leader of the gaggle (ie: in air and on land) and all the other geese learned from following his or her example? Perhaps all these other geese are what Robert E. Kelley were referring to as "effective followers".

    At the risk of anthropomorphizing, are the geese not possessing the qualities that Kelley was speaking of? They're intelligent enough to fly in an aerodynamic pattern...or if that's a stretch at least smart enough to know when they're tired and should take a less influential role. They have a commitment to the end goal of migration, to surviving, and to the survival of the gaggle. If that's not tempering "loyalties to satisfy organizational needs", well, I don't know what it would be!

    Great job, by the way Nicole. Very observational and insightful. See ya manana!

  4. I really enjoyed reading your blog, Nicole, because it got me thinking about a lot of different things regarding the roles of leaders and followers. I appreciate both Alanna and Christopher's responses and propose to take the conversation a bit further and in somewhat of a different direction.

    In his article, Rost explains that "followers can become leaders and leaders can become followers in any one leadership relationship." In application to the concept of leadership with the geese, this ability to shift between roles leads me to wonder how the geese decide which goose will step up and take the role of head goose when the current leader is too tired to continue?

    While I recognize that geese do not have the specialized communication systems that we have as humans, they must have some sort of structure or else the beautiful "V" arrangement would not maintain its shape at all times. Thus, I want to apply this concept to organizations and pose the question of how the leader and follower roles shift effectively without totally disrupting an organization's "V"?

  5. What a clever & cute post, Nicole! When it comes to humans, I think the combination of personal traits, behaviors & actions, and situational factors allow a person to become a leader. In other words, leadership requires more than action. I recently took an Animal Behavior course, and it turns out that researchers have not yet confirmed that animals have distinct traits and personalities (or, for that matter, whether geese have a sense of awareness and consciousness). I think leadership is a more complicated situation for humans – the combination of traits, behavior and situational factors. As you suggested, I think we are hindered by our complexity- our self-consciousness, memories, past experiences, expectations, self-fulfilling prophecies, etc. Too bad for us- if only we could live and lead as simply as geese!

    On a side note, geese in the back of the V-formation honk to encourage those geese up front to maintain their speed and performance. This should teach us humans to practice more positive reinforcement and encouragement in the workplace. Encouragement produces a “win-win” situation in that performance and progress increases – benefiting both leaders and followers. Moreover, when a goose gets sick or is injured by gunshot/airplane and falls to the ground, two friendly geese leave the formation and follow the goose down to help and protect her. The loyal geese stay by her side until she is well enough to fly again in the formation. This can teach us that one plus one always equals more than two. In other words, combined effort, attention and energy produce optimal, “win-win” results. Great post!

  6. Hi everyone! Thanks for all of the great comments and insights. Alanna- I think you have an excellent question surrounding the leadership of leader goose in that s/he does not affect change, rather just fills a role that is necessary. Perhaps all of these geese are doing their job as good followers as several of our readings this week suggestion. What I mean to say is, maybe taking turns as a leader is an example of a follower taking an active role in the group when needed. There is definitely a distinction to made in terms of what we define a leader to be, both in the animal world and that of human society. It would be interesting to find some kind of avian research regarding physical traits of geese (since I think that's all a human could observe), perhaps some are more physically capable than others... Christopher- I hadn't thought about what would happen if the leader goose refused to move back into the V formation, does chaos ensue? I do think that leadership is at least part about knowing when to give others the lead role in certain situations, like in class when we discussed that there are times that we are all too tired/inexperienced/frustrated etc to be a leader when an opportunity presents itself. Cynthia- After reading more for this week I too did see the parallel between what Kelley was saying about effective followers and these geese. As previously mentioned in this comment, I think its possible that all the geese are effective followers knowing when its their turn to lead, and when its not, knowing how to stay in the correct formation. Though I've started to wonder if they learn to fly in the V from older geese or if its something they innately know to do, which is probably a question for another class! :)

  7. Hi again! Thanks for all of the great posts! So that no one feels left out of the discussion, I thought I would respond to the most recent two posts. I assume that this V formation is organized in such a way with some sense of order, so each knows when it's their turn to take the lead. I hadn't thought much about the honking but it is an interesting addition to the discussion, especially since were talking about encouragement and rewards in the last class. I think that the simplicity of this idea actually lends itself to a more complex conversation about how leaders and followers act in key roles for the good of the organization. It also serves with last example of how some geese will stick together to aid an ill goose shows that the individual is still important within a large organization. I can't wait to hear what everyone has to say in class!


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