Leadership Lessons from the Herd

Ever wonder how a flock of birds knows when to change direction?  What about a herd of deer which seem to zigzag through a field?  By taking a look at the behavior of other species, we can learn some lessons about leadership, and apply them to become better managers.  I’ve identified four keys which influence animal behavior, with implications for how you can better influence your team.

Cohesion – For some animals, survival depends on sticking together.  A gazelle on its own can’t intimidate a cheetah, but a gazelle in the herd stands a better chance.  Think about your own groups – work, family, community.  Do they value sticking together, or do they value individual achievement?  Some groups feel consensus is critical to moving forward.  Other groups are open to any great idea, without any need to get everyone on the same page.  Knowing which group you belong to can greatly increase your ability to lead.

Speed – Research shows that speed matters to herds, but not in the way you think.  In every group, some members are fast and some are slower.  Logic says that the race always goes to the swift, but that doesn’t work when you are counting on team results.  Groups will follow a leader who goes fast, but only up to the point they can keep up.  If you’re leaving the rest of the herd behind, you’ll likely to find yourself running on your own.

Assertiveness – Even in the animal kingdom, assertiveness is important.  But again, not exactly in the way you think.  If you’ve ever tried to convince a barnyard of chickens to go in one direction, you understand that sheer size – and possibly wild arm-waving – will not achieve your goal.  When you look at the classes of dogs that make for good sheep-herding, you can see that they are not the biggest or most aggressive breeds.  Instead, they are the breeds which are fast, nimble, and calmly assertive, without trying to overpower the team (…I mean, sheep).  Assertiveness – defined as confidence and clear direction – delivered in moderation, is the key.

Need – The behavior of animals is sometimes defined by what they need at the moment.  Once more, the lesson is not exactly what you would expect.  Animals are led, not by the collective need of the group, but by the needs of the most-needy.  The hungriest deer will determine when a herd moves toward food or water.  That deer might be the ranking male, a pregnant female, an older animal, or a yearling. The rest of the herd may be indifferent to the timing, but will go along to keep the group together and make sure individuals can keep up.

That’s the final remarkable lesson from the herd.  It’s important to balance all of these keys, for real leadership success.  Assertiveness will only get you so far, if you can’t articulate the need to act.  Speed is a threat to the team, if you end up outpacing an otherwise cohesive group.  By balancing all four, you will have much greater success in leading your herd (… ahem… I mean “team”).

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