Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Migrating Geese – A Lesson in Leadership and Collaboration

There are certain moments I look forward to at this time of the year as indicators that Spring has indeed arrived and we can safely put away the snow shovels and take off the snow tires. Things like tulips rising from the ground, opening their petals to welcome the return of the neighbourhood’s pollinators. Or opening the windows to allow the sweet smells of lilac and apple blossom to drift into our home.

There’s also the return of the various bird populations, migrating back home from their winter sojourn to once again fill the air with the sounds of bird song. The most well-known example of migrating birds has to be the Canada geese, flying in their distinctive V-shape formation across the sky. While their appearance does serve as another reminder of the change in seasons, an examination of this behaviour can also reveal some useful lessons about leadership and the value of collaboration.

1. Leadership is about helping others, not just yourself
When the Canada geese travel in V-formation, the lead bird’s job is not simply to guide the other birds as to which direction to fly. Rather, the lead bird’s primary role is to help reduce air drag so that the flock can fly for greater distances without expending more energy.

The same approach applies to the role of leadership, where the function is not to get others to simply do your bidding, but doing whatever is in your abilities to help others succeed in reaching the shared goal.

2. Everyone has the ability to lead
There was a recent survey I read about where the majority of respondents related leadership to a title; that to be a leader in an organization, one had to be a CEO, director, manager, etc. Now if we look at how the geese designate who will take the front position, we see that each bird is given a turn in leading the formation. For the geese, it’s not a question of their position in the pecking order. Instead, it’s a matter of which bird has the ability in that moment to offer the support needed by the rest of the flock for them to reach their destination.

In looking at the behaviour of how geese migrate, we can appreciate that leadership is not a position, it’s a disposition that people can exhibit regardless of whatever formal title they might carry in their organization.

3. You can accomplish more working together than working apart
Scientists have found that when geese fly together in the V-formation, they can cover 70% more distance than if the birds were to fly alone. Given the long distances geese have to travel in the spring and fall, it’s clearly advantageous for them to work in a collaborative fashion, with each of them taking turns to reduce air drag while the others rest.

While some in management positions might prefer to focus on maintaining the leverage they have over their employees, the reality is that their business won’t go very far unless they work together with their team and foster an understanding that there’s a shared goal between the company and its employees. As with the geese, pooling the strengths and abilities of a company’s workforce will allow businesses to cover more ground than if they were to leave internal silos in place.

4. Working together means having each other’s back
If you’ve seen the Canada geese flying in V-formation, you’re probably familiar with the fact that it’s hardly a static formation, like what you’d see with fighter jets at an air show. Instead, it’s constantly shifting and changing. This is a result of the fact that the birds in the flock are taking turns flying in the lead position in order to give the other birds a chance to rest near the back of the line. This also ensures that the flock evenly distributes the workload so that they can easily make the long journey to their target destination.

Similarly, when leading a team or group of employees, it’s important that there’s an understanding that everyone on the team has each other’s back and that the workload will be shared to make sure that no one wears out before the team can reach their objective.

For the Canada geese, the act of flying in V-formation has certainly been vital to their ability to migrate over vast distances as the seasons change. As with so many other examples in nature, this behaviour can also serve as a valuable reminder for businesses on how to approach leadership and team collaboration.

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  1. On May 6th, 2010 at 11:25 AM Jim Matorin said:

    A great lesson. I first heard the geese analogy back in 1992 when I was with the Campbell Soup Company. I am glad you bought this back to life. So much has changed since then Tanveer. Specifically the communications overload in the C-Suite. Therefore, just like you shared in your previous blog re: taking time out to think, leaders need to take time out to make sure their team is collaborating, because in most cases they are not based on what I am witnessing. People are just trying to stay above water. Collaboration is also important now with the advent of all the social media platforms. Leaders need to make sure all their people are collaborating and communicating outward within and beyond the walls the same message.

    Once last thought: It is May 6th and you are looking for signs that spring has finally arrived. Glad I do not live up north. Just kidding!

    Thank you for sharing this great analogy. I am going to fire it off to the individual that made the geese speech. It will make his day.


  2. On May 6th, 2010 at 12:48 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    It’s funny that you mention my previous post on taking time out to think, Jimmy, as it was during one of those moments when I decided to take a walk to reflect that I spotted this flock of geese flying overhead. It’s always an amazing site to see, but being in that reflective state also made me aware of how much they were working as a team, with the lead bird taking the brunt of air resistance so the others could fly with more ease until another one stepped up to take the lead so the first bird could rest.

    The act of collaboration is becoming more scare these days, thanks to employees being more overworked due to the layoffs of former colleagues, as well as an understandable fear that helping others might keep them safe, but cause your own neck to be put out on the line. It’s times like these where leadership needs to come to the fore and, like the lead geese in the flock, help take some of this pressure off with the understanding that in working as a team, each person in the organization has each other’s back.

    By the way, a little over a week ago, we had snow(!) on the ground. So yes, I’m delighted that I can count with certainty that Spring is here. 🙂

    Thanks for the great comment, Jimmy. And do let me know what the person you gave this speech about the geese has to say about this piece. I’d love to hear their thoughts.

  3. On May 6th, 2010 at 12:50 PM Tanmay Vora said:

    Hi Tanveer – a great post again. Watching geese flying in “V” shape is not only fascinating, but makes me wonder how well these birds collaborate with each other. They do it in a way that we humans often find difficult to do as humans. Unlike us, they have no egos, no hierarchies – just a mission to reach their destination.

  4. On May 6th, 2010 at 9:07 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Tanmay; I appreciate that.

    What's amazing about geese is how they're not interested in individual achievement or gaining an upper edge over others in the flock. Instead, their focus is reaching a shared goal and they know they can't make it unless they all actively participate, as well as making sure they come to the aid of those who are having difficulties because they know this will impact all of them. Some pretty powerful stuff that we can really benefit from learning and applying in our own interactions as well.

    Thanks again Tanmay for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  5. On May 8th, 2010 at 1:08 AM Landon Creasy said:

    Hi Tanveer,
    Great post – lots to think about. As a naval officer, I spend a lot of time trying to foster leadership within the junior folks in the organization. By placing them in leadership roles (taking charge of small teams etc) we can provide them with the opportunities to demonstrate the very things you have so nicely identified from the V-formation of geese. Once we spot someone willing to step up, we provide more opportunities for growth – absolutely critical for us because we have to be self-sustaining; all internal promotions, you see.

    As a result of your post, I’ll think nicer thoughts towards the birds. Maybe even after they practice their coordinated attack on my parked car 🙂

    Gwyn Teatro was kind enough to visit my blog and suggest I come here for a look. I have to say, I’ll definitely be back! Love the layout as well.

    Landon Creasy

  6. On May 8th, 2010 at 12:08 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Landon,

    Thanks for your comment and welcome. I appreciate Gwyn pointing you in this direction.

    Your point about the necessity of internal promotions in the Navy brings up an interesting parallel between business and military institutions. While the Navy understandably has no choice but to promote from within, companies would also be best served by looking more within their ranks for their future leaders for a couple of reasons. First, by bringing someone up from within, you’re ensuring that those who will be in charge in the future truly understand the culture or soul of your company. Second, by drawing your new leadership from within, companies demonstrate clearly that they are looking at helping their employees grow and develop their careers and abilities.

    Of course, there are times where bringing in someone from the outside is necessary, like when a company is suffering from stagnation/lack of direction or if those at the front lines prefer staying there over having to play a more senior role.

    Regardless, what’s key is making sure that employees have the opportunity to grow in whatever capacity they can and that there’s this understanding of there being a true sense of team cohesion shown by looking out for one another so that the organization as a whole can succeed in reaching its objectives.

    Thanks again for sharing your experiences, Landon. And I’m glad to welcome you as a new reader of this blog.

  7. On October 24th, 2012 at 8:55 AM susmita said:

    I really love your page design. But the writing it’s really awesome. Thnx a lot as I needed this for my project.

  8. On October 24th, 2012 at 1:53 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Susmita; appreciate the kind words and I'm glad to hear this piece has helped you with your work.

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