Flying in Leadership Formation

January 9, 2017


Last week the focus of my blog was on leadership transformation. Over the last ten to fifteen years of my corporate career, I was taught a lot of things about management creativity. What I learned most was that I needed to embrace other ideas, listen to other points of view, and select the best ideas and approaches, especially if they weren't mine. So to a large extent it is like riding the wave of openness to other ways of doing things.

This way of harnessing creativity is a bit opposite to "flying in formation", which is more structured.

I got my idea for this leadership formation thought today when I was on one of my many walks, and I observed one of my old friends, Branta Canadensis - the Canada goose. I live in a part of southern Ontario where this bird is plentiful. Today they were flying in formation, and to say the least, they were a bit boisterous. That is predictable this time of year. They start to get ready soon into January for their upcoming "creative" season. Their hormones get flowing, prompted most likely by what may seem to us as imperceptibly small increases in the length of days, but to them it is a signal to get prepared. One of the things they do is fly in "V" formation.

I have often marveled at this formation, and as an amateur ornithologist, I love to observe what is going on. To me this bird behavior is a lesson in leadership. I have come up with these thoughts on flying in formation [1]:


  1. A designated leader, who in all likelihood is chosen for the role by his peers, heads up the "V" formation. I don't know exactly how that works in the life of Branta, but it seems to be the way. The key thing is that the leader is chosen for expertise, trust, and probably a level of courage to head somewhere.
  2. There is a distinct form of alignment in the "V" formation. Spacing is pretty consistent, position is solid, and all of the participants like to voice their joy in the alignment (hence the highly recognizable goose-honking behavior). Leaders and followers who "fly in formation" invariably celebrate a common sense of purpose and destination. It is a good thing to pursue something with a common sense of purpose. I don't suppose that they always agree on everything, but when it comes time to fly somewhere they fall into their designated place or role.
  3. Much has been written about the aerodynamics of the "V" formation. I am not an expert in this field of ornithology, but I do understand that there is a positive, synergistic "air lift" in this flying formation. The air currents produced by the wing beat of one bird provides a lift and propulsion for the one behind and so on down the line. The benefit of this synergy in the case of Branta is hard to define exactly, but it could be the benefit of energy conservation for the flock. Or perhaps it is a form of added assurance for everyone on the team that there is a destination worth pursuing and if anyone is feeling a sense of disorientation, they can rely on the position of their peers as a form of guidance.
  4. Careful observation of the "V" formation will often reveal a successor for the lead position. Sometimes the successor is located at the very rear end of the formation. On occasion I have observed the successor to break formation and fly all the way up to the apex of the "V" to relieve the lead. Because he is from the back doesn't mean he is the least competent. That wouldn't make sense for succession planning. But perhaps because of his position, he has a reserve of energy and has observed enough of the formation that he knows what will be required to bring the formation to their final destination.

There are some positive aspects of a team flying in close formation with each other. We would never want that to stifle creativity, but there are times when formation is needed. Well, my walks never seem to disappoint me - I always learn something that applies to the reality of leadership.

[1] The science behind "V" flying formation in bird species has been studied fairly extensively. A particularly compelling study was conducted by Steven J. Portugal et al. - "Upwash exploitation and downwash avoidance by flap phasing in ibis formation flight." Nature 505, 399-402 (16 January 2014).

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