The Honk Of The Leader

May 14, 2003
Good leaders effectively explain the organizational expectations and clearly define the direction of the group.
In a short while the Canadian Geese that have wintered in warmer climates will be returning to their northern habitats. It is a sure sign of spring and their incessant honking helps to trumpet their return. Animal scientists have found the reason for their honking and it has much to do with not only their group dynamics but also leadership.

It can be observed that the geese fly in a characteristic "V" pattern with the front goose posing as the leader. Not only does this lead goose dictate the direction of the flock but he also "cuts" the wind. The geese behind him actually draft from his lead thereby conserving energy for their long flight. After some time the leader tires of the burden of cutting the wind, not to mention leading the flock. At this time the leader fades back into the V formation and assumes a follower role only to be replaced by a new leader. The new leader has reserved energy because of conserving energy during their flight. This is where the honking comes in!

Scientists have found the reason that the geese honk during flight is to support and encourage their present leader. It seems that these migratory birds understand how important it is to support their leader. They innately know how important it is to provide feedback to the leader as if to say "keep going, you are doing fine". The flock's encouragement through their honking actually sustains the leader until that leader is replaced with a fresh leader. Perhaps another innate reason they support their leader is because they know that they will be the leader soon enough and they will also need encouragement. Soon enough, they too, will move up from a "honker" to the leader and this cycle repeats itself many times over during their bi-annual flights.

Maybe these geese understand the dynamics of leadership enough for us to emulate. It can be difficult and very trying to lead others and feedback can be very important. Leaders need to know how things are going and if they are doing well. That is why leaders need to be in touch with their employees and communicate with them. Without this feedback the leader may look behind them one day and find there are no followers.

The geese provide a good model for followers also. Followers need to support their leaders and also be able to offer input. It may not be what the leader wanted to hear but, nevertheless, unfiltered information or feedback is necessary for effective leadership. Good leaders will digest all information and make better decisions because of it. When followers feel they are being listened to they are more prone to support their leadership. This is crucial because their involvement leads to their commitment of the group goals or direction.

There is still another twist to the dynamics of the flock in flight. Just as the leader shows the flock the way an organizational leader provides the initial direction of the group. This is vital to the success of the organization. Good leaders effectively explain the organizational expectations and clearly define the direction of the group. This single action sets the tone for the organization and helps to clear up the gray areas for all employees. Without this clarity of purpose employees flounder and become lackadaisical. Good leaders also recognize the importance of having a mission statement and following that guidance. If these important concepts are communicated to employees they will be more apt to follow.

With the tone of the organization set and followed the leader can effectively fade to the back of the group just like in the example of the geese. The formal leader can then support the current leader and assist them in furthering the organizational goals. This is what is meant by "servant leadership". In essence, the formal leader then becomes a servant to the group and "honks" his support and encouragement. This is not to say the leader totally surrenders his leadership but he empowers others to perform.

The concept of the leader assuming a role of a follower, or at least in the background, is not new. Approximately 2,500 years ago a venerable Chinese sage by the name of Lao Tsu is recorded as saying;

(Ch. 17)

This quotation comes from the Tao Te Ching which is a compilation of 81 poems that define Taoism all authored by Lao Tsu.

In practical terms this concept can work well. Personally, I have seen the magic of this concept work in the setting of firefighting and even hazardous materials response. As a hazmat team leader I have witnessed all the leadership roles at a hazmat emergency performed flawlessly because I assumed a support role. This happened because all organizational goals and procedures were clearly communicated early and then reinforced through constant training. All leadership roles were empowered to do their responsibilities with little to none supervision. So, on an actual emergency people were allowed to do what they were responsible to do in the context of the hazmat team. As the formal leader I merely set-up the direction of the response and got the ball rolling in the right direction. At a certain point I faded into the background satisfied that the other personnel were proceeding in acceptable fashion in their roles as leaders of their areas or responsibilities. Everything proceeded safely, efficiently, and effectively. It appeared that the other leaders enjoyed their freedom and autonomy within their roles. It also felt that the emergency came with a sense of flow and was not only concluded with a good sense of satisfaction but also with a fun feeling. Personally, I cannot wait for the next emergency in order to duplicate the group dynamic that was enjoyed at this event.

In conclusion, in the event above I lead the group in the direction that we have decided was acceptable and in congruence with team goals and our mission statement. This was similar to the lead goose flying ahead of the flock. At a certain point I assumed a support role to the other leader positions on the team similar to the eventual fade of the lead goose to somewhere in the V pattern of the flock. In the support role I "honked" encouragement to the other leaders and became, at least for a short time, in the words of Lao Tsu, barely known. I was satisfied as the formal leader that the other team leaders were doing fine and the event was being led to a successful conclusion. And, I'll bet the team leaders that were empowered and supported enjoyed the "honk" of their leader.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!