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