Gulls and geese provide lessons in leadership

August 20, 2012
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Gulls exhibit a “flock” mentality that provides immediate rewards for seemingly uncoordinated effort, one that fosters and encourages competition rather than cooperation and fierce independence as opposed to loyalty to others.

Even though visually coordinated in flight, gulls do not share the “all for one and one for all” attitude that geese demonstrate. While a flock of gulls is a “fluid thing,” leadership seems to be provided by stimulus outside the group — some new treasure or morsel that attracts an individual gull’s attention, causing it to dart away to investigate with all others following closely behind. Rather than working in concert toward a common goal, however, they are all trying to stake an individual claim to the discovery. 

Gulls are scavengers that seek whatever will satisfy their immediate needs, travelling in flocks out of convenience (multiple eyes) rather than with a structured purpose. They are successful in spite of themselves rather than because of themselves. They live on things left behind by others, often more so than what is available through nature, choosing the “easy pickings” along a beach or landfill rather than the plentiful harvest in the lakes or seas near which they live.

Though they have no strong leadership or supervision, gulls thrive because they accomplish those things necessary to survive.

Some people approach leadership as if they were trying to motivate a flock of hungry gulls along a shore, trying to choreograph the independent actions of a moving group that exhibits individual thoughts and an uncoordinated focus. When motivating a competitive (or seemingly selfish) group by concentrating more on the goal than the road that must be travelled — more on the outcome than the process followed to achieve it — we may accomplish much, but we lose the power to accomplish great things.

Good can come from the orchestration of chaos but greatness comes when the group’s efforts are coordinated to satisfy the needs of the whole.

Geese by nature are structured, aggressive, fiercely loyal and protective. Their loud honking and awkward gait on land in no way resembles the choreographed motion of a flock of geese in flight. On land, these great birds are seemingly anti-social toward anyone infringing on their territory. In flight, however, they are graceful creatures involved in a never-ending group activity where there tends to be a “time and place” for everything. Constant changes in leadership — always leading the others toward a common objective — is a structure that produces results, without allowing individual variance. 

Geese would adhere to the philosophy that much can be accomplished if it is not important who receives the credit or praise. They constantly shift leadership roles within flight, keeping their eye on the final destination as opposed to the immediate process and not caring who is in the lead when they arrive. They only know they must initiate action and maintain a consistent course if they expect to reach their destination. 

Great supervisors and managers exhibit goose-like characteristics through their everyday actions, whether at work, at play or in their personal lives. They tend to provide the tools necessary for members of their team to make decisions, take action and work independently but are loyal to the group making sure no one member fails. They tend to train and mentor so their team tastes success rather than failure, without worry about who is receiving credit for the outcome of their actions. 

Good leaders establish clear and concise expectations relating to specific anticipated results, then constantly monitor the group’s progress toward its objectives.

Great leaders do much the same, but they equip their teams with the tools necessary to function independently, then step out of the way so that the group, team or those around them can act as they see fit, stepping in should the team falter but allowing it to move forward independently whenever possible. 

Other birds showing vastly different characteristics from geese and gulls include eagles (powerful, independent and self-sufficient), sparrows (meek and non-confrontational) and blue jays (aggressive, territorial and self-serving). Might owls (stereotypically thought of as “wise”) be viewed as being top management —relatively sedate yet quick, decisive and often ruthless when taking necessary actions? 

Would you prefer to lead a flock of ducks or a group of ostrich? Like these birds, some people tend to follow without question while others prefer to bury their heads in the sand and let the world pass them by.

While some people will follow a leader in order to reach a goal, preferring the safety of the flock to mask their individuality, others would prefer to reach a destination through their own initiative. To lead effectively we must recognize this variance by charting a path and monitoring progress for the “geese” (those who need direction and structure), while providing an unlimited horizon for the “gulls” who are seeking outcomes through their individual efforts. A good leader often succeeds by accomplishing one or the other. A great leader accomplishes both!   

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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