Leadership and Group Synergy

FlockOfBarHeadedGeese

Every year, bar-headed geese migrate thousands of kilometers from their breeding grounds in Mongolia to their wintering grounds in India, and back again. The bar-headed geese are one of the world’s highest flying birds, and have been known to cruise at altitudes of over 6000m (Mount Kilimanjaro is at an elevation of 5895m). They navigate through the mountain passes of the Himalayas, and there have also been unverified reports of them flying over Mount Everest.

They have incredible endurance – the amount of oxygen available even at lower elevations can fall to half of that at sea level. Humans are able to perform only mild exercise at that elevation, even after acclimatisation.

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Because we are so bogged down by titles and definitions at the workplace of who is a leader and who isn’t, we miss out on opportunities where team synergy could be channeled towards accomplishing great feats that would be impossible for one person to do.
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Individually, the geese are extremely well-built to achieve this aerodynamic feat year after year. However, that is only part of the story. Bar-headed geese are sociable birds that live in groups and large colonies. When they fly, they take to the sky in a V-formation of about 25 members. The birds help each other as they climb high altitudes.

As each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird that immediately follows. Because of the V-formation, the flock achieves a flying range of 71 percent more than what would be possible if the birds were to fly solo. When a goose falls out of formation, it feels the drag and the resistance of trying to fly alone. It quickly gets back into the group to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front and also passes this on to the bird behind it.

When a bird gets sick or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out of formation, two other geese fly down with the wounded goose to lend help and protection. They stay with the goose until it is able to fly again or till it dies. The birds then fly back by themselves, or join another formation, or try to catch up with their group.

The pressure of the drag is felt the most by the geese at the front of the formation. The birds at the back occasionally honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. When the head goose gets tired, it flies to the back of the formation and another bird takes its place.

There is a lot to be learnt from the intuitively collaborative bar-headed geese. Years of evolution have taught the geese to fly in V-formation, get the right uplift, gain advantage of group synergy, and support one another as they fly thousands of kilometers navigating the mighty Himalayas. Like the geese, we collaborate and work with others in our respective teams, but the degree of collaboration may differ.

The V-formation forms a nice analogy to showcase the intuitively collaborative team. Some rebellious team members may on occasion try to drop out of formation, but the drag of working solo eventually gets to them and they fall back in formation to take advantage of group synergy. Other team members are naturally helpful and when things go wrong for one person, they immediately make themselves available and help out until the issue gets fixed.

The most interesting behaviour is probably that of the head goose. As leader of the flock, it is required to lead from the front and does so with great energy. It lets its action speak louder than any honk (message) that it might want to pass on to the flock. The head goose and others in front are egged on by team members from the back as they all fly higher and faster as a team.

However, the head of the flock is also replaced every so often by others. The burden of facing the drag is shared among team members, and others step up when called to action. The success of the team is placed above individual success.

Because we are so bogged down by titles and definitions at the workplace of who is a leader and who isn’t, we miss out on opportunities where team synergy could be channeled towards accomplishing great feats that would be impossible for one person to do.

Collaboration is as important for the solitary leader as it is for individual team members. The leader must constantly make space for other team members to showcase their genius when the opportunity arises.

At the workplace, the leader is required to keep the team motivated at all times. However, like the head goose and the frontline geese, our leaders also need an occasional, reassuring honk from other group members to let them know that they are doing great. In the V-formation, every goose is a leader. This ‘shared focus’ helps build group dynamics. The whole is much, much greater than the sum of its individual parts.

A version of this post first appeared here and here.

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